It's rare to find an American movie that cares about what its characters do for a living, and rarer still for that living to be a recognizable one. Most film characters seem to hold glamorous but faux-humble positions: architects, magazine editors, PR reps, and other vague, unconvincing justifications for owning ridiculous real estate (you may see some ordinary cops or lawyers, which usually requires that the story takes them on some sort of heroic journey and/or dark tour of a metaphorical or even perhaps underworld). Screenwriter Steve Conrad
, though, actually seems to pay attention to how someone might earn his living -- even how someone might feel about how he earns that living. His script for The Weather Man found a local TV personality adrift in a feeling of meaninglessness (and food-throwing hostility), while The Pursuit of Happyness detailed the often-wrenching struggles of staying above the poverty line.
Now Conrad has directed his first feature, The Promotion, and he remains fascinated by the mechanics of everyday life -- more so, in fact, because Doug (Seann William Scott
) and Richard (John C. Reilly
), both assistant managers at a Chicago-area grocery store, will probably never be anything as glitzy as a local weatherman or a stockbroker. Article continues below
Doug is a blandly functional guy with a sweet, supportive wife (Jenna Fischer
); Richard, fresh from Canada, is a recovering addict starting over with his new family, clinging to sobriety via self-help tapes and the kind of mild but consistent ingratiation that, in a small supermarket chain, might border on ruthlessness. They both want to manage a new branch of the grocery chain. By turns, they both sort of deserve the job and they both sort of don't, but the movie is more about their mutual need for this promotion.
This could've easily turned into a game of cartoonish one-upmanship -- you can imagine a version that would've starred Ben Stiller
-- but Conrad's approach is closer to Alexander Payne, finding the invisible line between sadness and humor. Conrad isn't as satirical as Payne; he's less concerned with men who lie to themselves than with men who can admit (at least quietly) when they are weak or unhappy, but still struggle to play the game and work through it. So many films give their characters high-paying, vaguely unfulfilling jobs to triumphantly walk away from -- having already saved plenty of money during their years of hard work off-screen, of course. In this one, there are nonrefundable down payments and little kids -- reasons, in short, to covet a job that promises only slightly less drudgery and slightly more cash.
The Promotion, then, is better than the usual in so many ways. It's not as good as The Weather Man or the best of Payne; it's a little wobbly, with some characters -- particularly Richard's wife (Lili Taylor
) -- functioning more as plot devices than people. Given the two credited editors, voiceover narration, some awkward scene-to-scene transitions, a slim 90-minute running time, a generic title change (it was originally called Quebec), and the presence of the Weinstein brothers as executive producers, all signs point to some form of editing-room truncation (in the Weinsteins' case, the sign is buzzing and blinking in neon).
Even if this version of The Promotion represents Conrad's final cut (The Weather Man had voiceover, too), it has its share of rough patches: At times, it steps as uneasily as Doug and Richard. There's a subplot about racial tensions in the parking lot -- a group of black teenagers hang out and hassle customers, resulting in some hilariously disgruntled customer comment cards that vex Doug -- that rings true, but repetitively, and without a clear point.
Still, there's a lot to like about The Promotion, like the way Scott reins his goofy grin into something slightly rigid and almost panicked, or the blank-faced passiveness of the store manager (Fred Armisen
), or the cutaway gag about Richard's time in a motorcycle gang. Conrad stumbles a little, but he doesn't drop the ball, and finds the right ending: touchingly minor triumphs worthy of the film's best bits -- and maybe even real life.