The screenwriter Steven Conrad writes movies about success and self-fulfillment in America — how we define it, the price we pay for it, and what it looks like depending on where you're standing. In Conrad's The Weather Man, the central figure was a vain TV news personality who had everything that money could buy but felt profoundly, existentially mediocre inside. Then, in The Pursuit of Happyness, Conrad turned his attention to a man who had nothing, but who believed that, through sheer force of will, he could have a piece of the pie. Now, in The Promotion, Conrad completes his unofficial success trilogy (and makes his directorial debut) with a low-key, witty, observant movie about two men stuck squarely in the middle — of the country and the socioeconomic ladder. And where has Conrad chosen to set his latest parable? Why, in that shrine of modern-day hunting and gathering known as the suburban supermarket.
Everyone in The Promotion is striving to put food on the table — literally in the case of the shoppers who frequent Chicagoland's fictional Donaldson's grocery behemoth, and figuratively in the case of the store employees vying for a coveted career opportunity. For assistant manager Doug Stauber (Seann William Scott), the post of full manager at a new, nearby Donaldson's location would mean a welcome end to long days of pacifying aggrieved customers and patrolling the parking lot for unruly teens. It would also mean enough money for Doug and his nursing-school wife Jen (Jenna Fischer) to move out of their cramped, acoustically unsound apartment and into a starter home of their own. And the smiling, dutiful Doug seems to be a shoo-in for the position — until another contender arrives in the form of Richard Wellner (John C. Reilly), an assistant manager newly transferred from Quebec.
Richard has his own wife (a Scottish-accented Lili Taylor) and kid (and arsenal of self-help CDs), and his Canadian good cheer belies a wicked competitive streak. So the game is on to become king of the fluorescent-and-linoleum jungle. That may risk making The Promotion sound like an unwanted retread of the forgettable Dane Cook-Jessica Simpson comedy Employee of the Month that flitted through theaters briefly in the fall of 2006. But despite its gimmicky-sounding premise, The Promotion is, like most of Conrad's work, less concerned with matters of winning or losing than with man's sometimes noble, sometimes deplorable, often futile attempts to distinguish himself from the herd. It's not just the dream of financial stability that propels Doug and Richard toward their goal, but rather the notion of achievement, of proving themselves to themselves. ("You're such a guy," Jen tells Doug after he explains his desire to be the family breadwinner.)
Indeed, there's something enjoyably old-fashioned about Conrad's notion of men as providers in this culture of increasing tolerance for grown children living at home with their parents. His Doug Stauber is the heir to a rich tradition of American movie comedy everymen — George Bailey, Jim Blandings, Longfellow Deeds — who navigate the tricky waters of capitalism in an effort to lease a small parcel of the American dream, and there's no doubt that The Promotion would be an even better movie if there were a Jimmy Stewart, a Cary Grant or a Gary Cooper around to play him. Instead, we get Scott (a.k.a. American Pie's Stifler), who acquits himself reasonably well, but doesn't quite master the mix of innocence and hunger that the role requires. Reilly, meanwhile, has that — plus the virtuoso deadpan rhythms he showed to fine effect in Talladega Nights — in spades, and he turns the movie up a notch whenever he's onscreen.
In his first time behind the camera, Conrad tends to overextend certain recurring gags, but otherwise keeps things on an agreeably modest scale, confining most of the action to his expansive supermarket set (impeccably rendered by production designer Martin Whist) and clocking out before we've hit the 90-minute mark. As to whether a smart comedy about work and family can itself succeed in a marketplace overrun by idiot farces about reluctant bridesmaids (male and female), shotgun Vegas weddings and finding or losing Mr./Ms. Right...this remains to be seen. Such are the unpredictabilities of life in the checkout aisle.