I really like comedies where two stubborn individuals battle it out for one coveted prize, ignoring all common sense and social grace. Think War of the Roses or Grumpy Old Men. The Promotion really wants to be that kind of film, but sadly, it is not.
For his directorial debut, writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man) takes two regular guys and pits them against one another to see who can get the manager's job at a new location for the grocery chain they both work for. Will it be mild and meek Doug (Seann William Scott, still looking like he's trying to make sense of Southland Tales), who has lived in the same Chicago suburbs and worked at the nearest store for many years? Or will it be new guy Richard (John C. Reilly), freshly arrived from Quebec with his family, carrying a bunch of odd personal baggage with him? Which is sufficiently lacking in conscience to screw over the other man? Which one is enough of a buffoon to screw it up for himself?
Well, neither as it turns out, and that is the problem. The Promotion comes across like an eager nerd that wants to be everybody's pal, when it should be the kind of movie where we're rooting for the characters to get ruder and cruder and as mean-spirited as can be. Either that, or there has to be a clear hero and a clear villain so that we can take somebody's side. By default, the hero role seems to fall to Doug, who is our point-of-view character and the one who is having his territory invaded. Conrad takes great pains to make us think he's a decent guy who just needs to stand up for himself, even going so far as to let us into Doug's head via painfully redundant voiceover narration. Doug wants to move up in the world so he can buy his girlfriend (wife?) a house, getting them out of their rinky-dink apartment with its walls that are so thin they can communicate with their banjo-playing neighbor just by speaking in conversational tones.
At first, it looks like Richard is going to be a manipulative bad guy, smiling to your face and telling you a big story while he's secretly reaching around and stabbing you in the back. Except, he's not just telling stories, he's telling the truth, and so it seems like we're supposed to like him at least as much as we're supposed to like Doug. Even when the two of them do bad things, they quickly come around and try to make up for them. It's the worst case of mixed signals I've seen in quite some time, and it totally backfires. I'd rather these two dorks were easy to hate, because as sympathetic characters, they aren't very bright and are both such losers, it's hard to believe anyone would give either of them a job.
One thing I hate about reviewing a comedy like The Promotion is that even though it's kind of sucky, the cast is very good and very committed to trying to make the movie good, and I really want it to be better for them. John C. Reilly is terrific, as always, and SNL's Fred Armisen gets several laughs as Doug and Richard's vacant boss. The female roles are underwritten, meaning Lily Taylor is wasted as Richard's wife (and saddled with a ridiculous Scottish accent to boot), and Jenna Fischer once again gets short changed. It would have been nice had she had more to do, rather than the director skating by on having us believe Doug would fight for her solely on the basis of her being Jenna Fischer. As usually happens with a movie featuring Fischer, most guys will watch The Promotion and wish she was their girlfriend.
Even Seann William Scott, who can't really pull off being the underdog, tries his best. But it says something about a movie when the whole ninety-minute show is stolen by a five-minute cameo. As a motivational speaker, Jason Bateman performs at several levels above the material, momentarily elevating The Promotion to a comedy that gets repeated laughs rather than intermittent ones. His scene even has the best Fred Armisen moment.
Once that scene is over, however, it's back to business as usual. The Seann William Scott narration returns, stamping down on any momentum the movie manages to build like a giant foot landing on a parade of determined ants. I think it's the voiceover that bugged me the most about The Promotion, actually. The way it is written and performed, I can feel Steve Conrad straining behind it to make the audience accept that this is a quirky, quaint comedy about quirky, quaint people. As I was watching the movie, I started analyzing scenes where the narration appeared, and every time, what I was being told was unnecessary to my understanding of the film and undercut what was actually happening. Beneath the wimpy monologue was not the mean-spirited comedy I might have been hoping for, but an awkward comedy along the lines of something Ricky Gervais or Christopher Guest might make. The two best scenes in the movie--John C. Reilly before the board of directors explaining a fart joke for way longer than required, and the paper-bag moment at the motivational outing--elicit laughs by making us squirm in our seats. The genial tone of the narration smashes against those uncomfortable pauses and makes it so either we're jerks for chuckling at the awkwardness or chumps for putting up with the rest of this dull charade.
Which is a shame, because I went to this movie to laugh, not make a mealy mouthed new best friend. (Well, unless it was Jenna Fischer, of course.)