6/12/2008

The Promotion

Director: Steve Conrad

On the surface, “the customer is always right” may seem like the ultimate corporate management dictum but as my favorite boss once told me, the real strategy is to never let the customers make a scene. Strange advice from a former heavy metal drummer with plenty of stories of things getting out of control but realizing I’ve never been fond of public scenes of any kind, I took Dave’s advice to heart and despite a few unavoidable hiccups with those who seem to delight in perpetuating misery, it made my employment run infinitely smoother. Unfortunately, for the audience, this advice has never made it to the ear of The Promotion’s main character Doug (Seann William Scott). Slaving away as the hapless assistant manager, Doug fights against impromptu slaps by a gibberish speaking Teddy Graham coveting rebel and trying to broker peace between himself and his two apathetic fourteen year old security guards who—unsurprisingly-- seem more devoted to their cell phones than trying to deal with an intimidating young gang that terrorizes the shoppers and employees of the film’s supersized fictitious Donaldson’s Chicago grocery store. Of course, if Doug had been informed of this tactic, Pursuit of Happyness and Weather Man writer Steve Conrad wouldn’t have had a film with which to make his directorial debut. Although, dubbed “one of the unfunniest comedies ever,” by The Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt who also wrote that “watching The Promotion” should be added “to the Geneva Conventions’ list of humanitarian abuses,” possibly that would’ve been the best thing all around… if only-- much like our sad-sack Doug-- for filmgoers to avoid scenes as unpleasant as the ones found in The Promotion.

In a film that makes the similarly themed Dane Cook, Dax Shepard, and Jessica Simpson vehicle Employee of the Month look downright Shakespearean, our struggling thirty-three year old Doug assumes that his years of serving time in Donaldson’s under a boss who escapes to daytime matinees and car washes while he contends with an overabundance of customer complaint cards will be coming to a deserved end when he learns the chain is building a brand new store nearby. Convinced he’s a “shoo-in” for a promotion to manager at the new location, Doug and his hardworking wife Jen (The Office’s Jenna Fischer) purchase a home they can’t afford to escape their amorous gay banjo playing neighbors. Predictably, a wrench is thrown into Doug’s path in the form of John C. Reilly’s Richard, an aggressively friendly Canadian from Quebec who transfers down to Doug’s store with the intention of going after the same position and cushy benefits package for his new baby and Scottish wife Laurie (Lili Taylor using a hilarious Scottish Canadian hybrid accent) that he’d met while on a Christian mission. Initially unable to get a handle on the new “wild-card” Richard whom we later learn is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Doug and the newbie sidle up to one another, forming a strange professional bond that seems borderline friendly and competitive but grows increasingly acrimonious when Doug is relegated to near permanent parking lot duty in favor of self-actualization, self-help book-on-tape obsessed Richard.

All one has to do to anticipate the squirm-inducing, awkward and frankly painful stabs at humor in what I felt seemed like a manic-depressive screenplay is to reread the aforementioned descriptions one more time—a man who may lose his house; a recovering addict—not exactly the most surefire ways to garner laughs. While I applaud Conrad’s ingenuity and willingness to go against standard movie clich├ęs, as Roger Ebert noted, the film is never quite sure of its tone, similar to the writer’s woefully uncomfortable Weather Man. In addition, I still can't get over the troubling realization that I found circulating throughout my screening notes that an overwhelming majority of the humor seemed to stem from cheap shots involving minorities (whether homosexual, ethnic, or mentally disabled). While I can’t imagine this was the film or Conrad’s intention, I couldn't help questioning just how and why so many talented cast members including Bobby Cannavale and Jason Bateman (who turn in nice cameos) even bothered to get involved. Mercifully, it will most likely be buried in the wake of the Edward Norton starrer The Hulk this weekend here in Phoenix, again reminding us that in addition to not wanting to witness such a disastrous scene, when it comes to mean-spirited and dissatisfying drivel like this-- by staying away in droves, in the end the customer is always right.