dir: Steven Conrad
[img_assist|nid=113|title=Dorks just trying to dork their way up the corporate ladder|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=476|height=317]
What are our dreams? I don’t just mean what do we dream of, because most of us dream of flying, or exacting revenge on our childhood tormentors, or giving speeches naked in front of our co-workers and fellow students. And let’s leave out all the sex-related dreams regarding 80s sitcom stars or bus drivers. Please, let’s just leave them out.
Most of us, not being the super-creative and talented people whose works we crave in written, visual or auditory form as entertainment, have modest hopes and dreams. We dream of having jobs that don’t crush our souls on a daily basis. We might dream of owning, past a certain age, our own homes so we’re no longer at the mercy of deranged housemates, too-thin walls separating us from annoying neighbours and independence from the whims of landlords and slimy real estate agents.
We dream of being able to do okay and avoid looking like shmucks, at least those of us that aren’t shmucks. And even those of us who are shmucks dream of somehow getting that one thing (or several things) that’ll make everything seem a bit more worthwhile, in our eyes and in the eyes of others.
In that sense, The Promotion is a fairly gentle comedy that has its two main characters focus on the position of manager at a proposed new Donaldson’s supermarket as the be all and end all of their very existences. Our main character, who also speaks to us in continual voiceover, is Doug (Seann William Scott, who is not annoying for once). He’s the assistant manager at a suburban Chicago supermarket, and though diligent in his duties, seems to be getting nowhere.
He and his wife (Jenna Fischer) live in a cramped place with thin walls and a banjo player for a neighbour. The banjo player constantly practices his instrument of choice, and likes playing whilst having sex, all of which is readily heard by the young couple as if the guy’s sitting in their lounge room, giving them a blow-by-blow account. They hope for their own place, but Doug would only be able to afford it if he gets the manager position at the new store.
He is told by his feckless boss (SNL regular Fred Armisan) that he is a shoo-in for the position, and believes it’s in the bag. Of course, these are the opening minutes of the film. You’ve got to have conflict. You’ve got to have people who live only to become obstacles to your main character’s meagre dreams.
Usually, as for most of us, these life obstacles are parents, siblings, co-workers, fellow commuters on public transport, media personalities, opinion columnists, cynical politicians, petty bureaucrats, ticket inspectors, tradespeople, the banks, and frighteningly gifted film reviewers on the internet. All of them conspire to crush our spirits and railroad our lives until they become something unrecognisable from our initial blueprints.
Usually, even better, our biggest obstacles tend to be ourselves.
Doug’s nemesis appears in the shape of a Canadian guy from one of Donaldson’s Canadian stores, in the form of Richard (John C. Reilly). Richard is a nice enough chap, with a family of his own, who also feels that getting that position will secure him the life that he dreams of.
Richard seems like a decent guy, and loyal worker drone, and he is. His ambitions aren’t as aspirational as Doug’s, though they are metaphysical in nature. As a recovering substance abuser and Born Again godbotherer, Richard feels that getting the promotion would keep him on the virtuous path, and prevent him from backsliding, which would also keep his Scottish wife (Lili Taylor) and child happy.
His grasp is tenuous though, as it is for most of us poor shmucks who daily fight the desire to cast off the shackles of responsibility in order to get blissfully fucked up. It is a daily struggle. Slightest setbacks, and more serious ones, inch him closer to that razor-thin edge. Good news and bad news are both excuses, as I well know, for starting that dangerous thinking: “Shouldn’t I get some booze to...?"
In a lesser flick, the two men’s ambitions and enmity would result in slapstick one-upmanship and cartoonish attempts to tear each other down. There are thousands of those flicks. In an even lesser rendering of that lesser flick, one of the characters would be heroic and wonderful, and the other would be an evil bitch/bastard whose monstrousness is invisible to everyone except the protagonist until the end of the flick.
This flick tries to be more realistic. The two guys do get into an escalating level of conflict, but it’s less about what they actively do to each other, and more what they allow to happen.
When Doug starts seeing Richard as his rival, and sees situations which could reflect badly on Richard, he simply lets them come to pass. To him this means that he’s not actively doing anything wrong: the fuck-up is Richard’s, and Doug is just letting it come to pass because he knows it improves his own chances. When some Spanish-speaking co-workers trick Richard into inadvertently sexually harassing a female member of staff with a poorly understood reference to a kind of clam sauce, when he thinks he’s just asking for a cooking recipe, Doug knows full well what’s going to happen. Whenever Richard is about to inadvertently look like a total dick, Doug does nothing to stop him, even if he doesn’t relish the opportunity.
And why should he? He knows every fuck-up on Richard’s part only raises his own chances at getting the job. And since he’s not directly undermining Richard, isn’t he morally and ethically in the clear?
The thing is, whenever anyone has to ask themselves that question several times, they know the answer, and they know it’s not to their liking. Damn these burdensome consciences: what good have they ever done us?
Richard isn’t blameless either, deliberately relegating Doug to the most hated job in the supermarket, referred to as ‘Lot’, which means looking after the carpark outside the store. It’s a difficult job because the only staff meant to support him are two fourteen year old African American kids, who spend their time texting their friends, leaving him defenceless to deal with a group of, you guessed it, African American teenagers who camp out in the carpark making the customer’s lives hell. The racial aspects of these situations is well handled. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near subtle, but it’s an interesting way to represent these kinds of business/urban conflicts without the usual need to divide camps into “I have a dream”, and “Let’s squeal like pigs and have a lynching!”
The company genuinely sees that it needs to maintain good relations with the African American community whose custom the store enjoys. When Doug gets caught up in a fracas with the ‘lads’, he’s put in the unenviable position of having to explain himself to a meeting of the local community. It’s actually a great scene, with an embarrassing denouement for Richard, even down to a lame joke Doug writes into a speech about that one wonky wheel on every trolley, which gets an icy response from the company’s board members, but smiling recognition from the community.
It’s the little touches that make this film so enjoyable for me. It’s so low-key, which perfectly suits the performances and the material. It is still a comedy, I guess, but not one likely to make people piss themselves with laughter. For those of us who slave away poorly at unfulfilling jobs, the minutiae is what really gets the recognition and hits you in the gut.
It’s the tension over people taking your red stapler, or drinking your milk from the fridge, or the meaningless reports raised to the status of divine revelations, that really encapsulates the existential misery that is the hell of the workplace that the flick manages to nail. Just referring to them doesn’t guarantee success. It’s how it’s done that really matters.
When customer satisfaction cards collected from the carpark threaten Doug’s chances, he sets about to make some of them disappear, to comical effect. That thin slivers of card could dictate the success or failure of Doug’s very existence is all too absurd and all too believable, especially when the board of directors take an absurd but entirely believable interest in them.
Seann William Scott is not an actor that I have ever liked in anything before, but he definitely manages to dial down his usual annoying persona to create a believable character. I know how pointless this sounds, but much of the time it’s what he doesn’t do (more accurately, the fact that he doesn’t overplay most of his scenes), that really nails the character. John C. Reilly, by dint of having played the comedic sidekick in so many comedies, can only ever be expected to be going for laughs. He manages to invest his character with enough pathos for him to matter, especially when it seems like he’s going to “backslide”, as his wife keeps fearing.
For my money his funniest scenes also require him to do the least, and usually arise from his continual use of a set of motivational tapes meant to inspire him to greater heights of corporate success. The tapes are of a set where they are modified specifically for the purchaser, but very poorly. Cue multiple scenes where the motivational speaker’s instructions, and even amidst the lyrics of a classic rock song, are punctuated with a flat, almost angry sounding monotone repeating “RICHARD WEHLNER” in a highly absurd fashion.
I have to say I was both thoroughly surprised and thoroughly entertained by this movie. It’s one of the more intelligent and respectful movies of this genre (dead-end workplace comedies), and deserved more attention than what it received, even as it lacks any pretensions to be taken for anything more than what it is: a low-key, sly but interesting film about two guys and their modest dreams.
And that’s more than enough for me.
7 times you’d think Richard could have consulted some kind of Spanish-to-Canadian translation dictionary online before asking that poor female co-worker about her vagina out of 10
“We're all just out here trying to get some food. Sometimes, we bump into each other.” – The Promotion.