Promotion, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/06/08 14:00:00
The premise of the new comedy “The Promotion”--the cutthroat battle between two co-workers for a highly prized promotion that each one feels that they deserve more than the other--would seem to indicate that the film might be a madcap goof in which each one tries to one-up and destroy the other in increasingly zany ways in a corporate-themed variation on “The War of the Roses,” especially once you discover that the competitors in question are played by John C. Reilly and Seann William Scott, two actors who are hardly shrinking violets when it comes to broad comedy. Instead of taking that approach, writer-director Steve Conrad has decided to take a more subtle and deadpan comedic approach to the material. It is an interesting idea in theory but one that doesn’t really work in practice--the film is so restrained and deadpan that it barely seems alive at times.Set in Chicago, “The Promotion” kicks off when the Donaldson’s supermarket chain announces that they will be opening a brand-new and ultra-fabulous store in the area and that they are planning on promoting someone from within the company to take the coveted managerial position. Doug (Scott), a spit-and-polish type who is the assistant manager of a slightly seedier store located in the city, is convinced that he is the front-runner for the job--so much so, in fact, that he makes plans to buy a new house with his wife (Jenna Fischer) with the money that he will be making from his new job before he even interviews for the position. However, his dreams for an easy coast to victory, like so many others, is abruptly dashed with the arrival of Richard (Reilly), a Donaldson’s employee from Canada who has been transferred to Doug’s store and who announces that he is going to go for the manager position as well. As the interview process begins, the two begin to do everything they can in order to jockey for position while subtlety undercutting each other at every opportunity. Complicating matters even further is the fact that both Doug and Richard have certain character flaws--the former’s inability to deal with some tough black kids hanging out in the parking lot and the latter’s past drug problems that threaten to resurface whenever he is under pressure--that could well scuttle their chances for advancement without any help from anyone else.
When it is done correctly, as in the films of Albert Brooks and Christopher Guest, deadpan comedy can be the funniest thing in the world but when it is improperly done, it tends to result in sad, strange little films featuring vaguely unlikable people doing vaguely unpleasant things in such a weirdly stilted manner that they inspire more confusion than laughter. For the most part, that is the case with “The Promotion” because Conrad (making his directorial debut after penning the screenplays for “The Weather Man” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”) never manages to find the right comedic tone or rhythm--promising scenes flame out like an improv routine gone wrong and the pacing is so slow that even though it clocks in at a relatively brisk 85 minutes, it feels much longer. As for the main characters, they don’t work very well either because while they are likable enough, neither one is especially interesting and as a result, we never develop any rooting interest for either one of them to get the job nor do we believe that they would pull the various underhanded tricks that the deploy in order to defeat each other. However, the most egregious flaw of the entire enterprise is that having had the wit and wisdom to cast Jenna Fischer (whose TV show “The Office” is a perfect example of the kind of low-key humor that “The Promotion” is striving for) in a major role, Conrad utterly fails to give her anything remotely funny to do. Granted, Jenna Fischer has the kind of personality that leads you to believe that she could generate no small amount of interest even when she is simply standing around while doing nothing but in a film in which not much else of interest is going in, this is not the time when you should be testing that particular hypothesis.“The Promotion” isn’t totally without merit--it has some funny moments here and there (Jason Bateman has a hilarious bit as a motivational speaker and there is an inspired running gag involving Richard trying to explain away his occasional gaffes by explaining that they really mean something else in Canada), Reilly and Scott both acquit themselves nicely (based on his work both in this film and in the unjustly maligned “Southland Tales,” the latter is finally beginning to show that he can do more than just play the obnoxious wild man from the “American Pie” movies) and there is a lovely supporting turn by the always-reliable Lili Taylor (sporting an especially fetching Scottish brogue) as Reilly’s long-suffering wife. My guess is that if you came across it on cable one day or checked it out on DVD, it might play a little better in those scaled-down surroundings. However, when it comes to schlepping out to your local theater and plopping down your hard-earned money for a ticket, there just isn’t enough entertainment value here to quite justify its existence.
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