Satire is always a tough sell, and subtlety is dying in film comedy, especially in a sweaty blockbuster season full of explosions and cuddly CGI critters. But The Promotion hits its comedic targets not with a hand grenade but with slow-acting poison. Writer-director Steve Conrad attempts the tricky tone of Alexander Payne's modern classic Election, a style at once ironic and detached, but rooted in squirmy, warts-and-all reality — and it's never entirely clear whether Conrad is rooting for or sneering at his working stiffs.
Seann William Scott grinds off the more abrasive parts of his persona to play Doug, a long-suffering assistant manger at a Chicago-area supermarket, marked as a "shoo-in" for the head job at the chain's newest outlet. Unfortunately, there's a speed bump in the shape of John C. Reilly's aggressively chipper Richard, who sweeps down from Quebec to cast a cloud over Doug's dreams. These instant rivals engage in a cold war of increasingly ridiculous extremes, which quickly begins to degrade their careers, home lives and moral centers. The movie follows this basic route to its conclusion, but not without numerous side trips. These subplot detours include Richard's obsessions with glass bottle boats and tap dancing, and a near race riot as a consequence of Doug's ongoing battle with the local thugs who menace the parking lot.
Both of these schmucks desperately want the new job to prove themselves to their wives. Richard is a recovering addict, now hooked on self-help tapes, and Doug just wants to buy a house to get away from their crappy apartment and the loud guys next door who incessantly play a game of "sexual banjo." Both lead guys face constant threats to their manhood, and endless indignities from their indifferent staff, insane customers, needling boss (Fred Armisen) and the onerous corporate board that controls their fates.
Predictably, women are an afterthought in this macho, macho world of workplace chutes and ladders. There's not much here for the talents of Lili Taylor and Jenna Fischer (who's basically reprising Pam Beasley from The Office).
At its best, The Promotion is incisive and dark, more probing and truthful about America's kill-or-be-killed culture than any film in recent memory. But it also hits a few too many false notes, such as Lili Taylor's pointless Scottish accent. One big problem is that Reilly is so weird and pathetic that he's never as formidable a threat as Doug thinks he is. There's also a forced nature to some of the jokes, as if the studio were demanding more pratfalls and broad "trailer moments," which only underlines the movie's pet theme: The suits will steal your soul if you let them.
Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.