The Promotion is a nasty-hearted little film, and in absolutely the worst way for a film to be nasty: it is absolutely convinced of its own warm spirit and generosity towards its characters. Which qualities it possesses, I guess, once you can get past the fact that the protagonist is a spiteful, lying asshole and the movie itself is probably the most racist thing I've seen in a theater so far in 2008.
Somewhere on the north side of Chicago,* Doug Stauber (Seann William Scott) is an associate manager at Donaldson's, a chain grocery store specialising in creating the most impersonal shopping experience possible. Being a good member of the American middle class, Doug hates his job but bottles all that up inside, devoting all his energy to being the best lil' worker bee he can, even when (as is often the case), he is stuck with lot detail, which involves punishing customer complaints and a gang of tough black kids who cannot be stopped from their reign of terror, saying naughty words at middle-aged ladies and leaning against cars.
Doug and his wife Jen (Jenna Fischer) long to get out of their squalid apartment and actually buy a place, on a quiet tree-lined street, and it looks like they might get their chance when Donaldson's announces a new store† that needs a new manager, and Doug greedily tosses his name in the pot to be mistreated and ground down for a bigger paycheck. But on the horizon comes competition in the form of the inordinately polite Canadian transplant Richard Welhner (John C. Reilly), whose agreeable personal demeanor - hiding a past of drug abuse and motorcycle gangs - endangers Doug's status as the shoo-in for the promotion. The lines are drawn, and the two men each pull out every trick in the book to guarantee their advancement to a meaningless position of negligible authority.
As an indictment of America's worker drone mentality and the fact that very few of us still hold out hope for our dreams past about age 30, I must acknowledge my respect for The Promotion. Its vision of grocery stores as soul-sucking pits where hope goes to die rings very true indeed, and the behavior it presents among the victims is broad enough to be funny and pointed enough to hurt. On a theoretical level, the movie's sympathy for the cogs getting eaten up by corporate monoliths is both appealing and good, and its satiric elements welcome, if a little bit stale.
Where theory shades into practice, though, that's where we start to have problems. It's unambiguously clear that we're meant to feel sorry for Doug: so desperate to hold even the tiniest scrap of the American dream that he sells his soul, a chunk at a time. But this Doug is a man who doesn't want his wife to become a nurse practitioner because it means she will be his financial support, not the other way 'round; a man who is petrified of every single black person in the movie; a man who views his apartment as the very inner ring of hell because the gay couple next door has loud sex and there's a Mexican across the courtyard. All of these, by the way, are beliefs that the screenplay more or less endorses; particularly the one about how the Staubers' home is scary and unlivable because there are other types of people there than white DINKs.
None of this is Scott's fault; he is shockingly low-key and good in his role, with quiet desperation radiating out of his eyes but never otherwise betraying how much he hates himself. It's very easy to assume that a performer is bad based on his string of bad performances in bad movies; The Promotion is a bad movie, but it is a good performance, much better than it needs to be, and for this I salute the actor's newfound talent.
The fault, rather, lies with screenwriter Steve Conrad, making his directorial debut after writing the dire scripts for The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness, neither of which is so similar to the other or to The Promotion that we can make any judgments about the man's art other than observe his pronounced inability to craft a protagonist whose success or failure is of any more than sporting interest to the audience. And maybe a misplaced belief that misery is uplifting if you show enough of it.
It's quite a neat trick, to toss out one grotesque after another for the audience to giggle at in superiority, and then to flip around and ask us to feel good about the human ability to persevere, and it helps when it's done with a genuine sense of humor, as in The Office, Conrad's obvious touchstone. The jokes in The Promotion are unfortunately so bitter that it's hard to laugh, or even smile a little - my theater was a stony, grim place to be, at any rate, with nary a titter to be heard. It's mostly because we're honestly expected to root for a flat-out jackass, I believe, whose hatred for everyone around him infects the audience, leaving us feeling sour and miserable without any real catharsis. The 85 minutes spent watching the joyless terrors of this film are 85 too many.