Steven Conrad, the writer/director of The Promotion, could have gone in a couple of different directions with his film, which centers on two guys battling for a job at a Chicago chain grocery store. He could have traipsed through the well-worn but awfully funny territory of office humor, replete with annoying coworkers and pesky in-jokes. Or he could have gone a bit deeper, meditating on success and what it means to be good.
The main trouble with The Promotion is that Conrad's script doesn't commit to either direction. One minute the film is full of silly workplace antics (including a highly amusing tater tot battle). The next, it's fumbling toward a ham-fisted statement about addiction or manhood. In the end, the movie provokes neither riotous laughter nor profound revelations. Like middle managers everywhere, The Promotion just gets stuck.
Seann William Scott plays Doug Stauber, a grocery store worker who fears he may never climb above the dreaded assistant-manager rung of short-sleeved shirts and embroidered name patches. Outside the office, things are going well enough — cute wife (Jenna Fischer), hopes of buying a house — and so when a shining beacon arrives in the form of an all-new grocery store, Doug sees a chance at salvation. It could be his store to manage, all his; his boss, Scott (Fred Armisen), even goes so far as to proclaim him a shoo-in. That, though, is before Richard Wehlner comes to town. Richard (John C. Reilly) is a nice guy with a laid-back Canadian attitude and a sweetheart of a wife (Lili Taylor, who for some reason speaks with a Scottish accent). But Richard isn't about to roll over and let Doug have the job: Bolstered by self-help tapes, he goes about making the promotion his own. The Promotion creates a vivid picture of the workplace, but it doesn't do as well with its main characters. To see what I mean, just read more.
The Promotion scores points for getting the minutae of workplace life right, from the minor slights that preoccupy Doug and Richard to the tinny, piped-in grocery store muzak. The bane of Doug's existence is the store parking lot, the gang of kids hanging out there, and the nasty notes that subsequently end up in the comment box; those cards (which bear messages like "I didn't put sexual harassment on my shopping list, but thanks") give the movie some of its sharpest moments. We all have the equivalent of that comment box in our work lives, and those scenes perfectly mix pleasure and pain.
The film suffers, though, from a few attempts at pushing the boundaries of political correctness. Well, it doesn't really push the envelope — it just gently nudges it, without enough conviction to justify going there at all. Some of the cringeworthy moments are amusing: Richard's "blapples" quip, in which he calls some bad kids "black apples" in a racially charged meeting, was funny in the trailer and is even better in context. But too many others are just squirmy — including Doug's glory moment, when he has the final chance to impress the grocery store's board. What he says is so uncomfortable that the audience at my screening let out a collective "ohhhh no."
There's also something off-putting about the movie's underlying message, which crops up late in the film: Both Doug and Richard believe that the only way to make it, to be worthwhile in society, is to provide for their wives. "I want to be the primary breadwinner," Doug flat-out says at one point. But why Doug feels this way is never really explored; instead, it's presented as fact: Men, to be successful, must earn. That's just how it goes. We learn slightly more about Richard, but it's still not enough — and given the movie's somewhat sarcastic tone, I kept waiting for something in his story to be a lie or a joke.
As a workplace movie, The Promotion is quite funny. But when it tries to go deeper, things don't quite add up. In the end, too many of the film's choices — like Lili Taylor's baffling Scots brogue — just left me saying "why?"