'Promotion' labors away, then falls down on job

C+

July 04, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The new comedy The Promotion suggests that if American life is an extension of high school, laboring at a corporate supermarket is the equivalent of high-school detention. It's a funny insight undone by a scenario akin to a foul-mouthed after-school special.

Life lessons get learned, and the pretty good are pretty well rewarded. The movie has a touch of truth to it, but afterward you feel as if you've been tickled by a worn-out feather duster.

On the plus side, anyone who's taken a long hard look at himself and wondered, "How did this happen?" can relate to Doug (Seann William Scott) and Richard (John C. Reilly), two decent assistant store managers in a racially and economically mixed Chicago neighborhood. The supermarket company's board chairman (Gil Bellows) is an inflated empty suit gliding through the Windy City on his own hot air. The weasellike, if well-mannered, store manager (Fred Armisen) is quick to delegate authority and apportion blame.

The men who work beneath the assistant managers are incompetent, fearful or arrested at a sophomoric level. When a new store opens up in another neighborhood - and a full manager's slot opens up with it - Doug and Richard vie for the position. Doug feels he's earned the job after years of service. Richard considers himself equally qualified, though he just transferred to Chicago from a Canadian sister company. They're both gentlemen by nature, but they can't help letting the competition get to them.

Writer-director Steve Conrad, who wrote the scripts for The Pursuit of Happyness and The Weather Man, has a keen eye for igniting slapstick crises in everyday trouble spots. In the supermarket parking lot, a Yoo-hoo bottle in the wrong hands detonates catastrophe. And Conrad has a confident, humorous approach to issues of class and race. Doug fights to be color-blind, though the youthful slackers who dog his parking lot are black. After Doug assures the community that he's no racist, Richard commits Freudian slippage and refers to the culprits as "black apples."

The frayed thread of yearning in this movie comes from the lowered aspirations of the characters, who merely want to reach some small plateau of comfort and security without insults from customers and crude hijinks from co-workers. And comedy doesn't thrive on modesty.

The Promotion turns into a wispy morality tale. Doug wants to prove to his wife, Jen (Jenna Fischer), that there's upward mobility in their future; he puts down $12,000 for a new house before he knows the job is his. Richard, a recovering substance abuser, must demonstrate to his wife, Laurie (Lili Taylor), that he can walk the straight and narrow to success and help her provide for their daughter. But these happy-go-unlucky guys ultimately won't adjust their consciences to take advantage of each other's errors. They come to see that they can't be utter bastards and live with themselves.

Conrad sustains an aura of amiable dissatisfaction. All that cushions the bleakness of the would-be comedy is Jen's supportiveness and Laurie's tough love. Reilly is a master of well-meaning confusion. His Richard can't keep feelings from flying through his big, crumpled face. He is the world's worst liar: He tells Doug he's donning earphones so he can catch Canadian news, when he's really listening to self-help tapes. And Scott has an easy way with Doug's soft-shoe duplicities and sins of omission.

It's the smallness of the vision here that gets to you. The Promotion pokes fun at bureaucratic complaint forms and customer-response cards. But the movie itself is the size of a paperweight.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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The Promotion

(Dimension) Starring Seann William Scott, John C. Reilly. Directed by Steve Conrad. Rated R for language and sexual situations. Time 85 minutes.

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