THE PROMOTION bills itself as a comedy, and elements of it do fall into that category, but at its core, this is an incisive and often merciless deconstruction of the American Dream. What writer/director Steve Conrad is getting at here, amid the absurdity rife in the general human condition, is the dark side of that dream as lived by those for whom it is not guaranteed. They can glimpse it, but their ability to achieve it rests not so much on talent or drive as in mouthing the right thing in an interview, or currying favor with the right vendor or bad-ass customer.
The case in point is Doug (Seann William Scott), a decent guy who has toiled as an assistant manger at Donaldson’s Supermarket. It’s a dead-end, but one that contributes a livable income when paired with what his wife, Jen (Jenna Fischer), brings in from her hospital job. Suddenly, a ray of light appears in the form of a new Donaldson’s branch opening. It will need a manager, and Doug, with his experience and an attitude that is willing to suck up the low-level but unremitting degradations involved in getting ahead, is assured that he is a shoe-in. There is just the formality of the interview process with his only competition a much younger, less-experience guy from across town. Doug is dreaming of a house with a yard instead of the tiny apartment with the banjo-strumming neighbor and paper-thin walls. He’s dreaming of wearing a tie to work and a shirt with long sleeves. He’s dreaming of his wife’s plastic-surgeon boss not pretending to forget his name. He’s about to be broad-sided by a French-Canadian transplant, Richard (John C. Reilly) who becomes Doug’s co-assistant manager and his serious competition for the manager’s job.
Conrad makes the dynamic here not a good guy/bad guy face off. Instead, he pits two decent guys against each other in a zero-sum game that is not of their making. The film delves less deeply into the underpinnings of Richard’s machinations, though there he is obviously plotting for the one managerial job that will likely pop up in either of their working lifetimes. He’s also presented in a deeply sympathetic fashion as an easily wounded innocent, who obsessively listens to motivational tapes while trying to keep his life together after a recent bad patch. His is a childlike determination undercut by a paralyzing sense of his own abilities, a combination that makes it impossible not to root for him or to dislike him, particularly when he has the unswerving devotion of wife, played by Lily Taylor in another superb performance and divine Scottish accent, who is so tenderly and fiercely supportive of her man-child.
The focus is on Doug, and the struggle he has to remain the nice guy that he is while still getting what he wants. Scott, an actor best known for playing Stiffler in the hormonal AMERICAN PIE movies, reveals a solid depth as a guy who gets slapped around by life, but still has qualms about slapping around others to grab the brass ring. The struggle, the desperation, and the innate decency are all in play in a way that is positively heroic. Take the way he responds when forced by management and the hope of a promotion, to apologize to the kid who just lobbed a can of soda at him, and then to offer him free merchandise. The frozen smile, the indignity and the wariness as does it, and for his effort is pelted again, this time with jeering insults from the kid and his cronies, sums up the plight of the lower middle class with an indictment of the system as profound as that found in “Das Kapital.”
As for Reilly, with his doughy face and guileless blue eyes, he makes Richard’s struggles no less heroic, his failures no less heartbreaking as the story does a slow reveal of the journey he has been on before arriving on the scene.
THE PROMOTION is a savvy piece of writing, a character study is several senses that is as surprising as it is smart. The villain is the system, the pawns are everyone, and the winner is anyone who can hold their head up after the dust has cleared.