America’s self-image as the land of opportunity has such a stranglehold on the national psyche that our movies—even the ones made independently and on the cheap—evince an almost pathological aversion to the plight of ordinary people trapped in dead-end lives. Presented with a film called The Promotion, most of us would expect to see a story about a lawyer who’s desperate to make partner, or perhaps the valiant struggle of a longtime cubicle jockey given an unexpected shot at the firm’s corner office. Instead, what we have here calls to mind a sarcastic Dennis Miller one-liner: “If you’ve made it to age 35 and your job still requires you to wear a name tag, you’ve probably made a serious vocational error somewhere along the line.”
Granted, our hero, Doug Stauber (an impressively subdued Scott), is only 33. But we know right away that his name is Doug, because there’s a big, ugly “DOUG” stenciled onto the uniform he wears as assistant manager at a Chicago Albertson’s (here called Donaldson’s). Eager to become a homeowner, if only to escape an apartment with walls so thin that he can hear his neighbor’s sexual exploits and banjo practice (sometimes simultaneously), Doug has his eye on the manager position at a new store currently under construction. But so does recent Canadian transplant Richard Welhmer (Reilly), whose name we know not only from his name tag but also from the way he’s inserted it umpteen times into his motivational cassettes.
Ostensibly a comedy, The Promotion, written and directed by Steve Conrad (whose previous scripts include The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness), is at best sporadically funny, and few will be bowled over by its earnest message, which amounts to “don’t step on others as you’re climbing the ladder.” And yet it’s never less than compulsively watchable, simply because its milieu is at once so ordinary and—in the context of American movies—so bizarre. Just watching Doug deal with the teenage punks who set up camp in the Donaldson’s parking lot, or observing the two men jockey with Machiavellian fervor for the favor of the store’s Pepsi rep, you can’t help but reflect upon how very little even our best movies reflect our own lives. The Promotion won’t give you the belly laughs you wanted, but the shock of recognition is a doozy.