SXSW Movie Review: The Promotion

A comedy-drama written and directed by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway), The Promotion gently satirizes the insular world of grocery chains, consumerism, and, of course, the American Dream of success through hard work, hard effort, and fair play. Depending less on the broad, low-brow comedy generally associated with actor Seann William Scott (Mr. Woodcock, Road Trip, American Pie I and II), here co-starring with John C. Reilly (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Talladega Nights), The Promotion mixes smart, literate, character-based humor with raunchy, ribald comedy into a highly watchable, surprisingly entertaining film.

Doug (Seann William Scott), an assistant manager at a Donaldson's in Chicago, dreams (well "dreams" is probably too strong a word) of running his own store. Coincidentally, Donaldson's building a new store nearby. Doug seems all set to be the new manager, but fate intercedes (actually the heavy hand of the screenwriter) when Richard (John C. Reilly), a Canadian transplant, moves to Chicago with his wife, Shauna (Lili Taylor), and their young daughter, and becomes the second assistant manager at Donaldson's. Almost immediately, Richard applies for the top spot at the newest Donaldson's.

First Doug and then Richard's professional relationship become hypercompetitive, subtly undermining each other while maintaining cordiality. Doug's precipitious decision to buy a new house with his wife, Jenn (Jenna Fischer), adds urgency to Doug getting the managerial position. Meanwhile, the board of directors shows interest in both Doug and Richard. Richard, in a rare moment of vulnerability, shares potentially damning information with Doug, who has to decide whether he should use it to advantage. In the end, Doug seems like a shoe-in for the managerial spot, but risks losing his personal integrity and self-worth in the process.

Conrad balances Doug and Richard's respective likeability and relatibility as each gains and then loses the advantage over the other. Neither character becomes so unlikable that they risk losing audience sympathy. We end up hoping one or both getting what they want or, at least, what they need and for once, where both characters end up when the end credits roll doesn't feel cheap or manipulative, it feels true to the characters, their backstories, and their respective predicaments. Admirably, Conrad doesn't let the dramatic elements in The Promotion overwhelm the comedic ones, guiding the audience so fluidly from comedy to drama and back to comedy that they won't even notice the change in tone or genre (something he did semi-effectively in his last film, The Weather Man).

Conrad's also deserves credit for picking a perfect cast for The Promotion. Scott handles the more subtle aspects of Conrad's screenplay and his character convincingly, but it's John C. Reilly who really takes The Promotion to the next level. A master of the double-, triple-, and quadruple take, Reilly handles the broader aspects of his character's verbal and physical gaffes and the more nuanced aspects of his character's wounded vulnerability with an expressiveness few actors can match. Almost as good is Jenna Fischer, but alas she has too little to do here. Alas, Lili Taylor, one of the better actresses of her generation, adapts one of the weakest Scottish accents heard on this side of the Atlantic. It's a distraction The Promotion didn't need, but luckily she's not onscreen much.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10