Thursday, 28 August 2008

Film Review: The Promotion

As it stands, seasoned writer, Steve Conrad's (The Weather Man, The Pursuit Of Happyness) directorial debut, The Promotion doesn't have a UK release date. Due to poor Stateside business and reviews that ranged from lukewarm to savage, it looks unlikely to see British cinemas. If that is the case, then The Promotion will be one of the best straight-to-DVD films of recent years.

A low-key tragi-comedy centering around an escalating tussle for the titular leg-up between two borderline-desperate schlubs, The Promotion recalls the works of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne, only with more heart than the former and less misanthropy than the latter. Doug (Seann William Scott) is an assistant manager at K-Mart-alike, Donaldson's, an unrewarding job made all the more frustrating by his lackadaisical manager, Scott (Fred Armisen), strange customers (one of whom takes to tormenting Doug with frequent bitch-slap bouts) and the youth gang problem in the parking lot which leads to terrorised customers filing less-than-positive feedback cards that are kicked upstairs for the board members to read. Then Doug hears about a new Donaldson's opening across town and spurred on by his boss' claim that he'd be a "shoo-in", he decides to apply for the manager's job. Cue recovering drug addict/alcoholic, former-biker and all-round nice guy, Richard (John C. Reilly) from a branch of a sister-store in Canada to vie for the same job, making Doug's position as shoo-in increasingly precarious.

What develops is an often painfully funny, frequently childish game of one-upmanship with the upper hand constantly switching between Doug and Richard, occasionally within the same scene. Writer-director, Conrad never plays it for easy laughs although there are some pretty big chuckles here. Reilly, in arguably his best comedic role to date, is the source of most of them - the scene where he has to explain why he neglected to take down a pun-based poster about "cutting the cheese" hung at the delicatessen counter to board chairman, Mitch (Gil Bellows), is a masterclass in the comedy of embarrasment and awkwardness, with Reilly wringing more mirth out of a series of variations on the same explanation, complete with facial expressions that barely conceal the crying, confused child behind his eyes, than any number of fart gags would.

Scott plays against type as a man struggling vainly to coax some dignity out of his glorified McJob, never once resorting to the mugging and wise-cracking we expect of his roles. This is one of The Promotion's problems; although we're supposed to (I think), we never totally get behind Doug as a protagonist until the final reel (some may even find it difficult then) and by that point, we're too busy rooting for the far more flawed and likeable Richard to even care. Doug comes over as, at best, an impotent man-boy and at worst a petulant jerk and it's apparent that Scott was too busy trying to play it subtle to remember to inject any pathos into the role and the Doug's last act redemption seems too little, too late. I guess that ties in with The Promotion's message that being the better man comes not from what you do, but the way you do it (Fun Boy Three were right all along), but you can't help but occasionally pine for a little bit of Stifler mixed in with the Joe Schmo routine.

The Promotion isn't perfect. Conrad doesn't give the very able female support (Jenna Fischer and Lili Taylor play Doug and Richard's respective wives) much to chew on at all, turning two talented actresses into emotional ciphers. Also, the tone is pretty uneven, wavering from broad comedy (the bitch-slapping Teddy Grahams customer again; a parking-lot girlfight between Doug and Richard) to corporate satire (lacking the bite of, say, Office Space) to squirmy schadenfreude (the company retreat concentration skills game) and Conrad sometimes mistakes quirk for realism, giving his characters odd traits that you want to be explained away by a funny reveal, only the punchlines never come - I was waiting for Lili Taylor's terrible Scottish accent to be the butt of a joke at some point, but alas, I guess the girl was giving it her best Highland brogue after all.

In the end though, the pluses outweigh the minuses, largely thanks to Reilly's pitch-perfect, heartbreaking performance (leading to two contenders for the best funny/sad scene of the year involving Richard breaking down in tears after small talk with a Down's Syndrome colleague and tap-dancing alone in the store after closing) and some nifty scene-stealing from Saturday Night Live regular, Armisen (worth whatever he was paid for the hot coals scene alone) and Bobby Cannavale as a smarmy doctor. Steve Conrad will make better films, but he'd have to go a way to writing a better, more textured character than Richard Wehlner.

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