We're living in a period of broad comedy. Let's face it: subtlety in humor is not the province of film anymore. In the rare instances where it can be found (The Office), it's migrated to television, seemingly to stay. So it's a pleasure to report that screenwriter Steve Conrad's directorial debut The Promotion skates out onto that thin ice of comedic subtlety. Like its characters, it's not terribly successful, but it's an admirable effort all the same.
Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly play two sad sacks competing for the same job within a supermarket chain. At the outset, one intuits that Scott's Doug Stauber has suffered enough. A competent assistant manager with a seeming lack of competition, Doug is eyeing the manager position at a soon-to-open store. He can use the bump in pay to move himself and his girlfriend (Jenna Fischer of the American version of The Office) out of their hovel of an apartment—away from the thin walls and banjo-playing neighbor and into a new house. When Doug's Peter-principled manager (Fred Armisen) calls him a "shoo-in," Doug clings to the comment as a promise and a prize.
Then Reilly's Richard Wellner comes to town. A transplant from Quebec who's tentatively navigating his addiction recovery, Richard needs a fresh start. His cheery self-effacement and instant-buddy demeanor make him an instant rival to Doug, but the ostensible hero of the piece isn't sure he's ready to step on the fragile Richard (a devotee of self-help tapes) on the way to the top of the heap. Meanwhile, both men are under the screw-tightening pressure of their corporate overlords, represented by Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal). Their methods are textbook corporate hazing—tearing down their wage slaves to see if they will build themselves back up or simply pack it in.
Will Doug remain a short-sleever for the forseeable future, or will his humble dream trump Richard's? It's a recipe for Judd Apatow-style wackiness, and indeed there are some goofy bits involving Richard's awkward lack of business acumen and sexual banjo, but writer-director Steve Conrad tends to aim subtler. He guides Scott and Reilly—both winningly quiet—into deadpan territory with strange pockets of humor and slippery characters instead of conventionally broad situations and easily pegged players. Extra points for casting Jason Bateman as a slick company retreat leader and Bobby Cannavale as Fischer's uncomfortably impressive colleague (though allowing Lili Taylor, as Richard's wife, to keep herself amused with a Scottish accent was a mistake).
As admirable as is Conrad's delicate approach, his narrative becomes muddled. Doug ties himself in moral knots in his pursuit of the job, but once it's clear he's the better man for it, the ethical waffling loses interest. When the script turns Doug's truthful answer to his boss' point-blank question into a moral failing, a "rat out" about Richard's irresponsibility, it's hard to share the filmmaker's sentiment that this is somehow wrong. And when Richard digs himself a hole with bizarre racial comments, Conrad and Reilly don' t clarify whether it's a botched attempt to make Doug look bad or just Richard's personal ineptitude.
An undercurrent of racial tension pervades the film, with a group of African-American hooligans habitually stirring trouble in the grocery's parking lot and the store's Hispanic underclass troublesomely manifesting their displeasure at being kept at the bottom of the heap. Conrad didn't have to go there, but he does, and the racial ingredient adds flavor to the mix. But it's another ambiguous element that could have used a bit more focus: it's either daring or an oversight that Conrad leaves the impression that the characters' white-bread discomfort with ethnicity might also be his own. In the end, this intriguing comedy neither catches fire nor locates the pulse of dramatic resonance it's looking for. Maybe The Promotion would've been better off as a farce after all.