A STRING OF BLUE COLLAR comedies have hit the big screen in recent years.
Like any mini-genre, there are good examples (the surprisingly touching Waiting) and bad (the unsurprisingly terrible Employee of the Month and anything starring Larry the Cable Guy). These films all touch on less glamorous aspects of the working life, such as dealing with rude customers at a chain restaurant or stocking shelves at Wal-Mart.
The Promotion is the latest, and arguably the best. One of the reasons is the cast. Seann William Scott has made a living playing immature jerks like Stifler in the American Pie series. Here, however, he turns in a surprisingly subtle, grown up performance as Doug Stauber, assistant manager at a Chicago grocery store. Doug suffers under the incompetence of his boss, Scott (SNL vet Fred Armisen), and from the hoodrats staffing his store and loitering in the parking lot. But he forges ahead in hopes of becoming the manager of the new branch opening across town.
Doug Stauber is looking for nothing more complicated or grandiose than the American Dream: He wants to move out of his tiny apartment and into a nice house so he and his wife, Jen (Jenna Fischer), can enjoy their few free moments together. He wants to be able to provide for his loved ones. He wants respect.
All that is threatened, however, by an upstart transfer, Richard (John C. Reilly). Coming from the Canadian branch, Richard also plans on applying for the job coveted by Doug, putting all his hopes at risk. The chemistry between Reilly and Scott is perfectly played: antagonistic, but with a light, comedic touch.
What follows would usually be a simple tale of good versus bad: The friendly American versus the rude outsider, the put-upon nice guy versus the pushy newcomer. It's a tribute to both the performers and writer/director Steve Conrad that we are instead treated to a nuanced piece that manages to find both humor and humanity in the complicated corporate landscape most of us inhabit.
Scott's performance is great, but Reilly is the soul of The Promotion. His Richard is a recovering alcoholic and former gang member trying to set his life straight who listens to self-help tapes to build up his confidence. At the beginning, however, we don't know this, or comprehend his motivation, so he comes across as devious and untrustworthy. At one point he has Doug assigned to "lot" duties--a far less desirable venue than serving as assistant manager inside the store--and at first, the audience assumes Richard is simply trying to ace Doug out of his promotion by taking on a better job. In revenge, Doug blames Richard for an inappropriate sign the deli attendant has put up, getting him in trouble with the store's board of directors. (Later we learn that the reason Richard asked to have Doug moved outside was because his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, who works for Pepsi, was going to be in the store that day.)
If this all sounds silly and petty, that's because it is silly and petty. But that's the point. These two men may look ridiculous, but this is life and death to them: If Doug misses out on this promotion, he's going to lose the $12,000 good-faith deposit he made on his modest dream house. Is that a lot of money? In the grand scheme of things, maybe not; to a man struggling to support his family and buy his first house, it's everything. Reilly and Scott make us feel the desperation of their situations.
Conrad's direction is another element, and mostly for his commitment to reality. One of the key groups inhabiting The Promotion's landscape is a gang of black street toughs who make life difficult for people trying to pick up their groceries: At one point a kid chucks a bottle of Yoohoo at Doug, whose response (a quick shot of Mace to the perpetrator's face) lands him in hot water with the board.
Something was odd, and a little off-putting, about the scene until I read an interview with Conrad, where he pointed to "the Charles Bronson movie, remember, where there's, like, a street gang and there's six African-Americans and one white guy, and you know that the white guy's in there because the studio told them to put a white guy in there.
"You just don't see it in the world, right? I mean, there are white gangs, and there are African-American gangs, but there aren't many gangs that are integrated. I just haven't encountered them. In fact, I've noticed, I have stuff ordered to me, I've noticed that some of our content [in The Promotion] that concerns African-Americans, Latinos, some people are made a little uncomfortable by it."
What was off-putting was just how true-to-life Conrad played it. And he's right: This is not something you see too often in the movies. But it's one of the elements that contributes to the feeling of reality in The Promotion, and immerses us in the everyday struggles of Doug and Richard.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.