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June 30, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | June 30, 2008 |

The Promotion is a strange little film, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s kind of like that high school friend who you don’t see that often, who wouldn’t make the top friends cut on your MySpace page. But after a couple months or years, you make plans and end up hanging out for hours and hours, closing down the bar or bowling alley and just having an amazing time. You ride the high for the next day, wondering why the hell you don’t hang out more often. Then a few days later, you completely forget about the friend while Cat Stevens sings about seasons changing, and you move on with your life.

It’s the major directorial debut of screenwriter Steven Conrad, whose poison pen rakes a wide swath culling a bizarre combination of Mitch Albom’s saccharine sentimentality with the mopey sardonic bite of a Steven Wright comedy special. At his worst, he’s the most commercial, though The Pursuit of Happyness rode mostly on the coattails of The Fresh Prince of Battlefield Earth. At his best, (The Weather Man) he reminds me of Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald sitting on a bus and eating worms from a briefcase — only a select few will appreciate the subtle humor. His work isn’t quite an outright side-splitting comedy, but it’s not exactly a drama. It’s a black coffee cup full of slice-of-life drama, dosed with two packets of Splenda humor. Kind of like “The Office” (Gervais, not Carrell) doing audiobook versions of business management bestsellers.

Doug (Seann William Scott) is an assistant manager at Donalson’s, a grocery store in an urban sprawl. His boss (Fred Armisten) pretty much assumes he’s a shoo-in for the promotion to store manager of a new location in a supposedly better vacant lot in an equally depressing section of town. Then along comes Richard (John C. Reilly), another assistant manager from the Canadian sister store with a penchant for business motivational tapes, who becomes direct competition for the new store manager position. The two begin a low-voltage power struggle in their efforts to eke out the titular promotion.

At first, it seems like this is going to end up being another flusher in the vein of Employee of the Month: a broad comedy where two shaved primates engage in wacky hijinks in order to one-up each other and ultimately catch Cowboy Crabs from Daddy-Crush Barbie. While The Promotion has a relatively simple plot that coasts along at an extremely Eeyorian plod, there is an incredible amount of layering in this film. Instead of feeling rich and satisfying like delicious chocolate cake from the Swiss Colony catalog, it’s more like reheated seven-layer taco dip. Most of the spice has been nuked out, the lettuce is a little wilted, but there’s still enough there to make it tasty and mildly appetizing.

The cast is jaw-droppingly spot on. I find that Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly both suffer from the delusion they are much funnier than they actually are. In the beginning of both their careers, they managed to be unexpectedly hilarious. As time wore on, so did their welcomes, and they started to play variations on the same general character that ended up degrading in funny like the half-life of some sort of weapons-grade yellow cake hilarium. However in The Promotion, they are both going against their typical over-the-top performances, each playing a different shade of middle-management loser. John C. Reilly plays the same kind of Mr. Cellophane-esque loser with the aw-shucks shufflefoot and sheepish grin he started out with, rather than the sort of douchey-clueless swagger of a Dewey Cox. He’s more Magnolia than Boogie Nights here. It’s actually Scott that gives the most surprising performance since he’s so understated and low-pitched. He’s like Ron Livingston in Office Space or Swingers or even akin to Jason Biggs in American Pie. It’s nothing I would have thought possible from him because I felt he was always that sort of one-note fratfucker, so much so that it even resonated in the unfortunate sequels to American Pie (VI-X) starring his ass-stain brother. But he manages to pull off middle management loser just as potently as he pulled off douchebag.

I am literally flabbergasted at the performances of the rest of the cast, not only because Conrad managed to stack his deck with some serious talent, but because he gets just as incredibly against-their-grain nuanced characters out of them. Jenna Fischer pops up as Doug’s wife Jen, a nursing student who’s supporting her downtrodden husband. Fischer puts forward a feisty and flirtatious yet entirely endearing romantic lead, which outshines even Jennifer Aniston’s turn as the waitress-girlfriend in Office Space. Fred Armisten usually turns out these sort of bizarrely overtly homosexual/foreigner characters as if he caught a scorching case of Mango from Chris Kattan. But here, he manages to be such a believably awkward store manager, I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually rang me up at the local Save-A-Lot. He’s like the rest of the flock of recent SNLers who managed to step out from the typical curse of Rockefeller.

Even the cameos are weirdly appropriate, not once feeling like stunt casting or an attempt to get the audience chuckling. Masi Oka appears as a genuinely caring loan officer without any trace of the “Yat-sah! Nissah Versah!” accent that could have plagued him forever. Jason Bateman shows up as a management training seminar coach who plays his scenes with the usual subtle sarcasm we’ve come to demand, but for some reason, even that has been vaguely shaded by the overwhelming overcast day that is this picture. In fact the only performance that was uncomfortable to watch was Lili Taylor as Richard’s beleaguered wife. They saddled her inexplicably with a terrible Scottish accent and a shitty attempt at an ungodly red tint-job which was terribly distracting and totally unnecessary to the plot.

This is one of the few tonal missteps the picture takes. It sort of stumbles like John McClane at the end of every Die Hard movie, a lurch on the bad foot but still kicking ass with the good foot. The movie takes a few dark humor swings at the piƱata of corporate management and for the most part it knocks out a few Snickers. When it’s handling the ins and outs of retail bullshit, it is spot fucking on. From getting shafted with the shit duties on the store floor, to having to answer to your upper echelon superiors, to the mockery of the low-level minimum wage monkeys. This movie sings with the resonance of David Sedaris’s Elf in The Santaland Diaries. It even has a running gag with a terrible motivational tape that keeps mechanically repeating Richard’s name as he listens to it.

The movie takes a similar swipe at racial relations, though probably less successfully so. It stays away from being preachy, instead opting for a demonstrative buffoonery. It doesn’t lazily falter as harshly as everyone’s favorite Oscar-winning kickapoo, but at least it goes for awkward humor rather than powerful speeches. There’s a problem with street gangs (headed by Randy from Season 4 of “The Wire” — so THAT”s where he ended up!) loitering in the parking lot and tormenting customers, which culminates in Doug getting a YooHoo bottle chucked at his head. This is also coupled with the minimum wage Mexicans working at the store who slur in Spanish and bust on everybody. This ends up with Richard asking a teen produce stocker if he can sample her “sweet pussy juice.” If it was a solid steady style of humor, it might have worked. Instead the jokes are so teeth-rattling that you kind of sit there with an awkward mouth-covered chuckle, looking out of the corner of your eyes for any darker faces in the crowd to make sure it’s OK to laugh. Conrad works hard to push the black humor to Alexander Payne levels of uncomfortability.

There’s an overwhelming quirk in the details that permeates the film, which will make it off-putting to most people. There’s a Tater-Tot incident which is central to the film that’s referred to as “The Tater Tot Incident”. Doug and Jen’s neighbor can be heard through their paper-thin walls having anal sex and/while playing the banjo. Doug’s name is Googled and he’s accused of being a former junior Olympics gymnast. It’s the kind of quirky indie stuff like hamburger phones and screaming into ravines in garbage bags that turn people off.

I know it seems like I’ve been lavishing praise on this film, but let me warn you: like most independent films, more people will hate the fucking shit out of this than love it. It’s very similar to the first time I saw Napoleon Dynamite. When I walked out of the movie theater, I couldn’t decide if I had just seen the greatest movie ever made or the worst piece of shit ever. I still am not sure. Much like that movie, The Promotion is desperately committed to the environment: a gray retail existence with two losers in mortal combat. Yet the ending is so out of the middle of nowhere, I’m still chuckling thinking about it.

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

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The Promotion / Brian Prisco

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