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Promotion, The
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by Erik Childress

"Prove Steve Conrad Has Earned His By Showing Up!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FESTIVAL: Screenwriters are the walking screwed of the film industry. Often too little of the credit and too much of the blame when things go wrong with a film. In the day of screenplay by committee, rewrites that bare little resemblance of the original vision and further tinkering that turns something fresh into the same olí corned beef rehash few writers ever get the recognition of name that come with nearly every other facet of the filmmaking process. Take the case of Steve Conrad. 12 years after debuting with Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, he penned a lost gem if there ever was one, The Weather Man. It featured two stellar performances by Nicolas Cage and Michael Caine and proof that director Gore Verbinski was not one to be pigeonholed into a genre. See how easy it is? Looking back on my review of the film, I only mentioned Conradís name once amongst all its praise. But a year later, I slammed Will Smithís oscar bid, The Pursuit of Happyness, mainly for having a script that was too pedestrian and didnít tackle (even subtly) many of the themes that I felt Conrad was capable of tackling based on his previous work. With one studio clueless on how to sell The Weather Man and another with who knows how many Big Willie hands in the pie, Conrad takes center stage with his directorial debut, The Promotion. Unfortunately followed with stories of reshoots and additional scenes, itís all on him now, so letís pray that the folks over at Dimension realize that Conrad has delivered another priceless dramatic comedy before it instantly gets demoted to overlooked status.

Normally, assistant manager at a grocery store is the kind of position you would have hoped to grow out of by your thirties but Doug (Seann William Scott) has settled into it. Heís not exactly happy, but certainly would like to help provide his wife (Jenna Fischer), a nurse earning the bread-winner title, with the home in the Chicago suburbs theyíve always wanted. When its announced that a new branch of the store is opening in the city, Doug immediately adds his name for consideration to be head manager, an idea encouraged by his boss (Fred Armisen), who is hardly the poster of executive exuberance. A new employee has just been added to their location though. Richard (John C. Reilly) arrives from Canada with all the robotic, yet seemingly genuine, congeniality that customer service outlets crave and announces that heís in the running for the job as well.

Itís hard to hate Richard, also with a supportive wife (Lili Taylor, sporting a Scottish accent), but heís a clear obstacle for Doug and hindering the entitlement heís more than earned by now. A team of executives (led by Gil Bellows) are watching every move of the two candidates and anything as simple as a misconstrued word in the workplace is tantamount to a strike against them. Doug takes the brunt of the wrong time/wrong place demerits but each of them is willing to use the otherís flaws against the other. Richard, sporting the perceived manners of our North American neighbors, is not above exaggeration or playing the sympathy card to the bigwigs but honest enough to confess the vices of his past that heís taken so many steps to correct. Itís a game of oneupmanship that leans towards the outlandish but is pulled back by characters who are more human that sitcom histrionics.

The meat of The Promotionís plot lends itself to immediate hiccups that weíre in line for the broad physicality of the Dane Cook/Jessica Simpson monstrosity, Employee of the Month (which featured a similar mano-a-mano) or seeing gifted comic actors wade through a laughless spectacle like The Ex. Nothing could be further from the case and itís The Promotionís subtle dramatics and sly commentary on social economics thatís going to surprise audiences looking for laughs on the minute. The Promotion embraces itís semi-inner-city roots and spends a good portion differentiating between the cozy confines of the store itself and the parking lot where groups of black youths loiter about and disturb customers. Dougís days on lot detail are his least favorite and least successful when observed by his superiors. His frustrations became ours and are only influenced by true executive authority who see a single purchase as territorial liberty.

The way Conrad injects the race dynamic into the script is rather ingenious from the hierarchy of the storeís employees to the discomfort of innocent Freudian slips that can be used to take down an otherwise good person. Dougís own geniality is tested throughout the film (even by something as simple as his fellow workers suggesting the rumors of a gymnast past) but instead of just being the dope who never says the right thing when he needs to exonerate himself, actually considers the further consequences and even feels guilt towards actions he contemplates during the final phases of their examination.

Reilly has been trucking around for decades, and while audiences certainly are stuck in the now with him as a golden comedic presence, they may forget how good heís been in films like The Good Girl, Chicago (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and especially Magnolia. In The Promotion heís desperate to keep his demons in check and masks it in such politeness that you really feel for him in moments (both hilarious and discomforting) when the true colors of his intellect are revealed. Hardly known for his dramatic work is Seann William Scott. Though a comic force in the American Pie series, Scottís never been given a role like this before (save for the broad comparison of Mr. Woodcock) and he makes due with the best performance of his career to date. A good guy by nature, a defensive and desperate liar when he needs to be, Scottís Doug is a true, everyday underdog chasing the one American Dream he can reach for and we want to do everything to give him that one extra push. By contrast, the women in the film are given far less screen time to their husbandís struggles but Conrad again smartly knows how to inject them as integral forces to their drive for success and even gives Fischer and Taylor memorable one-liners to up the humor quotient.

The Promotion, beyond whatís a deeper screenplay than some may give it credit for, is consistently funny in a build-up-and-release way that, much like The Weather Man, supplements those one-liners with uncomfortable behavior and a comedy of manners. Sometimes all you need is a director who understands the material and Steve Conrad proves to have just the right touch absorbing his ideas behind the camera as he does on the page. What you also need though is an audience to nuzzle it and a studio thatís not afraid of their reaction. Why they didnít show up for Grindhouse and The Mist may be holiday-related, but hereís hoping that the Weinsteins and their Dimension banner give The Promotion the push it deserves in a crowded summer. And if anyone has to do any meddling, I would only suggest tweaking the filmís one major flaw and thatís by allowing it to just overreach with an unnecessary epilogue before the filmís credit. The scene and image that comes just before it is an absolute perfect, one-of-a-kind moment to cut-to-black and should have those who show up loudly applauding and laughing in enthusiasm.

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originally posted: 04/11/08 01:39:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/09 mr.mike Should have been a tv-movie. 2 stars
8/19/09 Dan Surprisingly understated movie, considering the cast. Littered with laughs. 4 stars
6/23/08 AMD very under-rated. some scenes don't work well, but consistently fine low key perform 4 stars
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  06-Jun-2008 (R)
  DVD: 02-Sep-2008


  DVD: 02-Sep-2008

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