The Promotion is about exasperating bosses and eccentric employees. Also, Jenna Fischer plays a cute working woman with wistful hopes and low expectations. Those similarities to The Office shouldn’t necessarily suggest that this serio-absurdo corporate comedy set in a Chicago-area grocery store will be anything like a popular sitcom set at a Scranton paper supplier. But the workplace created by writer-director Steven Conrad is presented as a sitcom biosphere, so superficial appearance gets in the way of the filmmaker’s obviously deeper intentions. Conrad, who wrote The Pursuit of Happyness, sets himself a particularly stiff challenge when he entertains complex, more novelistic notions of the working world — yet casts so many TV players with broad personas in small, showy, shot-on-a-day-off parts, among them SNL’s Fred Armisen and Ally McBeal’s Gil Bellows.
The Promotion flirts with a vibe that’s more Harvey Pekar than Steve Carell, but avoids full commitment. Why? An everyday universe where essentially nice guys are sometimes goaded to engage in dirty tricks is certainly a dislocation with which any grown-up can identify. Doug (Seann William Scott), a bland supermarket middle manager with a supportive wife (Fischer) and a goldbricking boss (Armisen), thinks he’s the leading candidate to become the manager of a branch outlet. But that’s before Doug faces competition from Richard (John C. Reilly), a maddeningly affable counterpart from a Canadian sister store who drives south from the Land of Nice with his sweet Scottish wife (Lili Taylor) in tow, equally intent on nabbing the promotion. Bellows leads a team of suits who will decide the new hire.
As flawed individuals repeatedly try, fail, and try again to improve themselves (Richard heeds the audio advice of a fatuous self-help guru), The Promotion edges toward some pretty bleak stuff. Then it steps back and laughs, like an office slacker. C+