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Wednesday, September 24, 2008
  DVD Review: The Promotion

I had no idea what to expect going in to The Promotion, which is really how I wish I could go into just about every movie I see, as I find it makes the viewing experience purer somehow. (Alas, in this age of the Internet and thanks to my own addiction to movie-news websites, this almost never happens anymore.) I’d seen the trailer, but aside from the basic premise, I knew nothing. And by the time the credits rolled, I’d been pleasantly surprised by this endearing workplace comedy.

The Promotion is about Doug Stauber (Seann William Scott), the assistant manager at a suburban Chicago outlet of a fictional chain of grocery stores called Donaldson’s. He’s growing increasingly dissatisfied with his lot in life, and when he learns of a new location being built nearby, he puts his name in as a candidate for manager of the new store, thinking the new authority will net him some newfound self-respect. His boss tells him he’s a “shoo-in” for the new position, until Richard Welhner, (John C. Reilly), an assistant manager from a store in Quebec, transfers to Chicago with an eye on the new manager’s job himself. In the meantime, Richard is placed in Doug’s store, where the two men begin a workplace rivalry that eventually escalates into all-out war as they each try to screw the other one over for the job.

If for nothing other than the fact that writer-director Steven Conrad mines the workplace for comedy, The Promotion is vaguely reminiscent of Mike Judge’s cult classic Office Space, not to mention TV’s The Office (The Promotion also co-stars The Office’s Jenna Fischer as Doug’s patient wife), but it’s really quite a different movie. Office Space had a dark heart of very real anger at its core (as does Judge’s follow-up, the little-seen Idiocracy, one of the angriest comedies I’ve ever seen), however silly the proceedings were on the surface. But while The Promotion does take many swipes at the ridiculousness of corporate life, even at the retail level, Conrad’s overall take on humanity is much, much brighter than Judge’s. Conrad, who penned the screenplay for the feel-good Will Smith hit The Pursuit of Happyness, treats the main characters with affection, even at their most ridiculous, and it gives The Promotion a warmth that Office Space lacks. (I, however, am a mean-spirited, curmudgeonly bastard, so I still prefer Office Space.)

All that said, The Promotion still made me laugh quite a bit. As much as John C. Reilly is a truly great actor, he’s also proven himself in the last several years to be a talented comic actor as well, and his Richard Welhner is simultaneously totally ridiculous and also a very real guy who just wants to provide for his wife and child. He listens to self-help tapes (literally; he carries around an old-school cassette walkman) that feature classic rock meant to inspire him, such as ‘Fly Like An Eagle,’ and Conrad assembles some nice, clever little montages of him strolling confidently down the streets of Chicago with his silly headphones while Steve Miller croons. Reilly also does a strange “Canadian accent” that somehow manages to be funny and sound somewhat familiar to a Canadian like myself without actually being accurate; I’ve never heard a Canadian who talks like this, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t funny.

But the movie ultimately rests on the shoulders of Sean William Scott as Doug. He’s the straight man to Reilly’s wacky Canuck, which is typically the more thankless role. I actually really like Scott despite my hatred for the AAlas, the two men couldn't resolve their differences with a staring contestmerican Pie franchise, where he made his name as the irritating frat-boy archetype Stifler (his chemistry with The Rock is great in The Rundown, one of the better action movies of the past decade). Here he’s the complete opposite, a soft-spoken, passive guy who’s quietly wondering where his life went so wrong. After all, few people dream of being an assistant manager at a grocery store in their early 30s. He still gets a lot of funny stuff to do, and his relationship with Fischer is both sweet and funny, particularly anything involving the couple’s neighbours, a gay, banjo-playing couple never seen but heard through their thin apartment walls. All Doug wants is to be able to provide for his family, a motivation just about anyone can relate to.

The notion that all both of these men wants is to be the breadwinner for their respective broods is what gives The Promotion its emotional core, and it’s also what keeps either character from devolving into a cartoonishly evil asshole. But it’s also the thing I took issue with the most; there’s something archaic about the notion that men should provide for their families, and while the movie makes it clear that both guys are a little backward in this regard – Doug’s wife genuinely loves him, regardless of where he works or how much he’s getting paid, a fact he can’t seem to grasp – the film still felt a little too quick to justify the characters’ bad behaviour because the ends justify the means. It’s a minor gripe, and I do give Conrad credit for crafting a satisfying ending (which I will not spoil) that resolves all the conflicts set up in the film.

As Conrad himself notes on the commentary, the film is basically about the nobility of people who toil away in thankless jobs we don’t particularly like, or sometimes even hate, for reasons larger than ourselves. And while a message like that coming from a guy who makes his scratch writing and directing movies in Hollywood runs the risk of coming across condescending, it’s not. As much as it was marketed as a zany comedy about psychological warfare at the workplace (and it is that, to an extent), The Promotion is really about the sacrifices we all make in our professional lives in order to find some kind of personal fulfillment. It’s a fun little comedy with heart that’s worth a rental.



The Promotion DVD has a decent collection of extras, lead by commentary by writer-director Steven Conrad and producers Jessika Borsiczky Goyer and Steven A. Jones. Goyer and Jones mostly discuss nuts-and-bolts details of shooting on location in Chicago, from issues involving finding an empty grocery store to shoot in to dealing with a set reeking of spoiling meat, while Conrad primarily discusses the movie itself and the characters. For a guy who wrote and directed a pretty funny comedy, Conrad is very soft-spoken and sober, and it’s clear he took the material more seriously than one would expect. He talks about treating the characters with respect (rightly gushing over his lead actors in the process) and trying tDon't let the ice cream and young child fool you; this is waro ride that line between making a funny movie without reducing anyone – particularly Reilly’s character – into a buffoonish caricature. He also discusses the film’s small scale, swapping stories with the producers about various corners being cut, almost none of which come across in the movie, so good on them for that. And his story about Dimension Films boss Bob Weinstein agreeing to fork over the cash needed to get the rights to the classic rock tunes featured in the film on the condition that Conrad do some script work on another, unnamed Dimension film gave me some insight into how Hollywood works (up until then I just assumed everyone just slept with everyone else for work; I guess it’s true that you learn something new every day). It’s a solid, if unspectacular, commentary track.

The other main extra is a featurette on the making of the film. It’s pretty standard making-of stuff, with clips of the cast and crew talking about how great everyone else is to work with. I happen to find these sorts of things interesting when the film itself is interesting, and I liked The Promotion well enough that it held my attention for its brief running time.

Also included are a handful of deleted scenes, and as is typically the case, some are interesting, some aren’t. The “outtakes” listed on the back of the DVD are really just an extended outtake of a single scene that apparently Seann William Scott and his co-stars just couldn’t get through without laughing. I guess you had to be there.

There are also some “webisodes” created to promote the film online, also pretty hit-and-miss, though the one in which Conrad recorded a phone call from Scott in which the actor, evidently jealous that Reilly will be doing his “Canadian accent,” pitches him on doing an accent of his own. It’s pretty funny stuff, if only because I was never really clear if Scott was joking or not (Conrad alludes to him being a bit eccentric in his commentary). Overall The Promotion is a solid comedy tailor-made to find its audience on DVD.

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