The Promotion

Director: Steve Conrad
Starring: John C. Reilly, Seann William Scott, Gil Bellows, Fred Armisen
3 stars (out of five)

A low-key comedy about the depressing nature of mundane, lower-middle-class workaday reality, where the shot at being promoted to manager of a supermarket is enough to make men destroy lives—their own and others? So, what, somebody asked for an antidote to the Summer of Superheroes?

The Promotion is a good movie, with an excellent cast and filmmakers confident enough to resist the full-scale quirkiness of, say, the lovely Little Miss Sunshine and the lame Smart People. Full-scale quirkiness, in which everyone is so deeply weird that a movie supposedly about day-to-day life becomes dull farce, has mutated into its own increasingly tedious genre as everyone tries to score the next Napoleon Dynamite, or whatever. The other direction comedy has gone is the gonzo gross-out, the Farrelly Brothers school of making the audience squirm with moments so horrifically embarrassing to watch that we have no choice but to laugh or leave the theater.

The downside to an earnest little film like this is, you know, it’s kinda depressing. It captures the unrewarding emptiness, the pathos of modern middle America, so accurately that our options now are to laugh, leave the theater or slit our wrists with the extra-long straw in our 64-ounce Superb-Sized fountain drink. Recently, Forgetting Sarah Marshall did a pretty good job of finding a middle ground between the Farrelly school and what writer-director Steve Conrad does with The Promotion. What Conrad offers here, though, is more in line with that indy flick with Jennifer Aniston, The Good Girl.

That’s a warning, by the way. You sorta need to know what kind of a movie you’re in for when you see something like this. It’s not escapist, and it’s not especially uplifting, even when the characters you’re rooting for score their victories. Still, I went to see this sucker at the end of one of the most soul-crushing work days (work weeks) I’ve ever had while employed in the United States, and I enjoyed the movie. It’s just that, if movies are junk food, this one’s a five-dollar cheeseburger rather than a stick of cotton candy, y’know?

So why see this thing? First, there aren’t enough good movies about the real world. I don’t mean the “real world” of romantic comedies like Definitely, Maybe in which everyone has an exciting job and reality is Technicolored into something that looks like you might actually enjoy living in. I mean a movie about ordinary people’s ordinary struggles, whether it’s a soft-spoken comedy like this or a drama. Secondly, great freakin’ cast. John C. Reilly is one of the most talented actors working today, and unlike the more out-there parody of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, this movie lets him use his full range to create a believable, fully realized character. Seann William Scott, in the lead role, is not the actor Reilly is, but he ably walks the movie’s fine line between pathos and parody. In small but subtly pivotal roles, Jenna Fischer and Lili Taylor (movies need more Lili Taylor!) round out an excellent cast, with Fred Armisen and Gil “I was the hearthtrob on Ally McBeal“ Bellows put teeth into the gears that grind up our heroes.

There’s not that many people making thoughtful comedies for grownups. It wouldn’t be a bad thing, maybe as a palatte cleanser between your iron men and your batmen, to give these nice people some of your money.