The Promotion (2008)

[31 August 2008]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Someone once said that all men live lives of quiet desperation. For those in middle management, said anxiety can be anything but silent. It’s never the big picture issues - the purpose of their productivity, their place within the larger corporate scheme. Instead, it’s the smaller things - petty differences, personality clashes, bumbling bureaucracy - that carry the biggest impact. So advancement is typically based on how well you maneuver the various minor concerns. Make a mistake, and it will cost you. Traverse it all successfully, and you still have to battle nepotism, the omniscient cronies, and the notion of being locked in something more or less dead end for the rest of your days. A movie like The Promotion understands this problem all too well. Too bad it doesn’t deliver the message in a consistently droll manner.

Donaldson’s Supermarket is about to open a new store in suburban Chicago, and longtime assistant manager Doug Stauber really wants the top job. While his current boss considers him a shoo-in, a recent transfer from Canada named Richard Welhner also seems up for the position. Initially, Doug’s not too concerned about the competition. He feels he has the inside track. But soon, Richard is working the coveted inside position, taking over important contacts like Pepsi. Doug, on the other hand, is dealing with the lot, and the gang of local thugs who intimidate and ridicule the customers. Corporate is not pleased with either candidate, and gives them time to shape up or ship out. Naturally, the men begin to instinctually undermine each other, doing whatever it takes to please their family and land that promotion. 

The Promotion (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is the very definition of a human comedy. Again, it’s not uproariously funny, or even laugh out loud clever most of the time. It doesn’t dial into the new “anything for a giggle” movie mystique, nor does it try to deliver mirth with over the top antics and outsized caricature. Instead, Steven Conrad’s likeable little film falls somewhere between heartfelt and hopeless. Thematically following the foibles of two men who’ve allowed their job to define their purpose, what we wind up with is an inconsistent entertainment that never ceases to stumble over moments that should simply just soar.

Some of the sequences (the abusive gang members harassing the customers) are clearly played for stock shock value. Others try to find that ironic insight that all post-millennial movies must now strive to attain. But thanks to the acting, and some interesting narrative choices, we wind up championing most of what happens. It’s not like The Promotion is out to trick us, or provide some manner of plot point misdirection. Conrad’s approach is clear - take tiny little moments, slices of every workaday existence and link them together to tell a recognizable story.

In what is rapidly becoming a New Age film genre, we are once again confronted with the ‘male alone” syndrome. Locked in a somber situation of their own making, and unable to let their partners or friends make up the difference, we get several scenes of leads Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly staring pensively off into the distance. Realizing that it’s no longer a man’s world, but forced into an instinctual need to hunt, gather, bring home the bacon, and increase their professional power, they are lost and forlorn. Even when they try to connect among each other, the pheromone scented posturing prevents any kind of asexual intimacy.

Like Fight Club predicted nearly a decade ago, the new male is really a dude, a dumb animal offshoot that tends to crap where it eats, and likes it quite a bit. Most of The Promotion is taken up with this kind of testicular one-upmanship, Doug digging Richard as he plots to put him down. We never really understand the internal motivation for such a circumstance - both men are genuinely decent and likeable - but the lure of Donaldson’s managership (and the accompanying cash) seems to drive both to distraction. While their battles make for some amusing sidebars, they never really seem to contemplate the consequences. All the brown nosing and butt kissing can’t overcome a failed drug test, or a dreaded inter-store complaint.

Part of the problem with The Promotion (and the facet that also keeps it from failing outright) is Conrad’s skill at observation. He understands the world of work, how people function as colleagues and employees. The stand offs with the Board (featuring a soulless Gil Bellows as the corporate speak executive) have a realistic ring, and when Scott and onscreen spouse Jenna Fisher discuss their privacy free apartment dwelling, we instantly recognize the repartee. But then there are times when Conrad’s scrutiny goes cheap, as when he has Reilly asking a Hispanic female cashier about her “p*ssy” sauce (it’s all part of a stock boy set up). Similarly, the gay banjo player interrupting Seann and Jenna’s closeness seems lifted from a bad SNL sketch. 

Luckily, the first time director (noted for his screenplays The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness) has that wonderful cast to keep him afloat. As a matter of fact, it’s something he acknowledges as part of the DVD’s intriguing audio commentary. Seann William Scott is truly emerging as a sharp leading man. While some of his American Pie posturing is still intact, he comes across as far less mannered here. Additionally, Fisher finds the right note as the more than willing to compromise spouse. But Reilly is the real revelation here. So internally tortured and pent up that he seems permanently constipated, his about to crack Canadian provides a uniquely engaging side to the actor. We are used to seeing him blustery and befuddled. Here, he seems to be living every mistake he ever made over and over again in his mind.

Elsewhere, the extras argue for the limited budget Conrad had to work with. While this does not excuse the film’s shrunken scope, it does explain why we don’t see more of its Midwest locale. Indeed, The Promotion is a small film, and as such, warrants equally limited expectations. If you base your potential response on what Scott and Reilly have done in the past, you’ll be bored before the first moment of comic clarity. But if you recognize that this movie wants to say something rather significant about the human experience, to showcase how some men are born to faux greatness while others are continually beaten to the professional punch, you’ll enjoy the 90 minute ride. Work may not truly define us, but it tends to make the most of its first impression. The Promotion suggests that, somewhere between exaggeration and exactness lies the reason for our desperation - quiet or otherwise. 

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-promotion-2008/