Based on a simple plot description, it sounds, of course, like another “down-market,” slapstick-laden comedy — a movie perhaps destined to play as part of a late-night, cable TV double feature with 2006's drab Employee of the Month, which starred Jessica Simpson as the mutual object of affection for a pair of feuding retail warehouse workers played by Dane Cook and Dax Shepard. But The Promotion, in which two assistant managers of a supermarket chain vie for the position of manager at a newly constructed store in a hip area of Chicago, is — pleasantly, if to its own potential commercial detriment — the exact opposite of the overly demonstrative goofball comedy that it easily could have been, especially if handed over to the likes of a director like Fred Wolf (Strange Wilderness) or Steven Brill (Drillbit Taylor).
Previously titled Quebec, it ignores farcical broadsides, shots to the groin and contrived dashes through aisles of precariously balanced glass bottles in favor of swallowed awkwardness and lingering customer service issues, and the result is probably one of the most low-fi movies about masculine competitiveness and existential crisis ever put to film. The feature directorial debut of Steve Conrad, the writer of The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness, The Promotion is about both the momentary awakening and eventual, shrugging receding of an alpha impulse in two otherwise beta males.
The story centers on Doug (Seann William Scott) and his young wife Jen (Jenna Fischer), a nurse, who share an apartment with paper-thin walls, and all the frustration that brings. Doug is the ranking assistant manager at a nearby grocery store, and his boss (Fred Armisen) seems to agree that he's a shoe-in for the head spot at a new location. But when the slightly older Richard (John C. Reilly) arrives, new to the area with his family, from Canada, those odds take a hit. Subtle jockeying and gamesmanship ensue, with each man trying to impress the company's board while not seeming to totally denigrate his competition.
As his previous writing credits suggest, Conrad has a certain way with masculine malaise. Here, Doug and Richard are each in their own way felled by pride, yet the movie as a whole takes just about every inwardly held expectation one might have about the concept and subverts it. This means no elaborate, unrealistic schemes of sabotage, no over-the-top physical comedy. Conrad instead parcels out a number of outlying character details which at first seem to be bluffs designed to give Doug and Richard some measure of false insight and confidence over the other. There's also a shrewd sense of detail; Doug bemoans being a “short-sleever” for life, so Jen's gift of long-sleeve dress shirts favored by more senior management triggers a quiet tidal wave of guilt over his lie to her that he's already received the promotion. Everything here is perfectly to scale, and the fibs and actions both guys make and take have realistic consequences.
The Promotion isn't necessarily for all tastes, but it deepens as it keeps unfolding, and never stops finding small and meaningful ways to surprise its audience. In a summer of explosions and desultory set pieces, its quiet grappling is a welcome, witty diversion. (The Weinstein Company/Dimension, R, 86 minutes)