Promotion, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Promotion, The Poster

The Promotion is a nice little comedy about what it takes to climb the corporate ladder and the toll such actions take on the psyche of a decent individual. Despite the presence of Seann William Scott, who will forever be known as Stifler from the American Pie movies, the humor here is restrained and low-key. There's none of the desperate, in-your-face antics that have become commonplace in American comedies. The characters act like people not like cardboard cut-outs whose sole purpose is to exist at the butt of jokes. And the film does not feel the need to resort to bathroom functions and bodily fluids to generate laughter. To the degree that The Promotion is funny, it's because there's wit in the script.

Doug (Scott) is the assistant manager at a Chicago supermarket. His boss (Fred Armisen) has assured him he's a "shoo-in" for the top spot at a new store that's opening in the city. This allows Doug and his wife (Jenna Fischer) to dream of moving out of their cramped apartment with paper-thin walls and into their dream house. But there's a complication in the person of Richard (John C. Reilly), an aw-shucks guy who has been transferred from Montreal to Chicago and joins Doug as one of the current store's assistant managers and a prospect for controlling the new place. Richard is a nice man with a wife (Lili Taylor) and a daughter. He's also a recovering drug addict with low self esteem who listens to self-help CDs. Doug and Richard like each other, but that doesn't stop them from engaging in a tug-of-war over who will get the promotion.

One of the more interesting aspects of The Promotion is that there are no villains. Steven Conrad, a veteran Hollywood writer making his directorial debut, effectively develops both Doug and Richard as decent guys. For the most part, they are rivals but not enemies. That's not to say the screenplay doesn't provide viewers with a "rooting interest" - the film is presented from Doug's point-of-view and he provides some sporadic narration - but Richard is not demonized. A lesser film would have presented the opponent as a conniving, contemptible stereotype and The Promotion would have been all-the-poorer for it.

Most of the movie's humor is organic to the story and its dialogue, not tacked-on. It provides a lot of chuckles and a few hearty guffaws. This makes plot and character development more important than in comedies whose sole purpose is to string together over-the-top jokes. It could be argued that The Promotion has too little bite and pulls its punches because the struggle between Doug and Richard doesn't develop into the winner-takes-all battle for which it appears to be headed. Does this reticence muzzle the movie's satirical commentary about the inhumanity of the corporate environment? Perhaps, but such an approach would not be in line with the characters' personalities. Both Doug and Richard go as far as their consciences will permit them to go, and they are clearly uncomfortable wading even ankle-deep into the churning waters of backstabbing and deceit demanded for true business advancement. Turning this into a corporate War of the Roses might only have worked at the cost of both characters losing their appeal, and the likeability of Doug and Richard is one of The Promotion's chief characteristics.

This may be the first time I have seen Seann William Scott play something more substantive than a wise-ass. His performance, while not eye-opening, indicates that he has more range than one might assume based on his resume. John C. Reilly continues to hone his comedic edge; his personality and skills are better suited to a movie like The Promotion than to some of the Will Ferrell/Jack Black collaborations with which he has recently been involved. This is the second recent film in which Jenna Fischer has appeared with Reilly, although she isn't given the same degree of exposure here as in Walk Hard, where she was June Carter to his Johnny Cash. Lili Taylor is equally underused.

When it comes to comedies about corporate gamesmanship and career assassination, The Promotion doesn't blaze any trails. What makes this film worthwhile is its willingness to display the protagonists as decent human beings despite their dog-eat-dog circumstances. There are enough laughs to justify it being labeled as a comedy but a stronger storyline than one normally associates with this kind of film. It's an enjoyable diversion amidst the big guns of summer.

Promotion, The (United States, 2008)

Director: Steven Conrad
Cast: Seann William Scott, John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Lili Taylor, Fred Armisen, Gil Bellows
Screenplay: Steven Conrad
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Music: Alex Wurman
U.S. Distributor: Dimension Films
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2008-06-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1