Sean William Scott, John C. Reilly Scan Well in Supermarket Sweep

The Promotion
Running time 85 minutes
Written and
Directed by Steve Conrad
Starring Sean William Scott, John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Lili Taylor

Steve Conrad’s The Promotion, from his own screenplay, immerses itself in the world of Chicago supermarket midlevel employees, two of whom are furiously competing for promotion to a better-paying managerial position. At first, longtimer Doug (Sean William Scott) is considered a shoo-in for the promotion, but with the sudden arrival of Richard (John C. Reilly), a newcomer from a Canadian branch of the Donaldson supermarket chain, the competition is thrown open again.

Richard is more gregarious than Doug, and his amiability seems to give him an edge at the outset of their hilariously desperate struggle for advancement. Both men are in their 30s and married, Doug to a medical assistant, Jen (Jenna Fischer), and Richard to a Scottish woman, Laurie (Lili Taylor). Richard and Laurie already have one child, whereas Doug and Jen are still trying to determine if they can afford to buy a house and start a family.

There are none of the usual shenanigans one finds in many current movies about married couples. The stakes are too high for any errant glances in one direction or another. Doug is somewhat irritated with Jen’s employer, Dr. Mark Timms (Bobby Cannavale), a pediatric cosmetic surgeon who is always popping up to boast of a life-changing service he has performed for one afflicted child or another. But there is never the slightest suspicion of any monkey business between Jen and her pompous boss. Indeed what is most different about The Promotion in today’s movie market is its unusual lack of malignancy, to the point that one feels sympathetic to both the apparent protagonist, Doug, and the apparent antagonist, Richard. Then what accounts for the quiet horror of the situation? Dare I say it? It’s the infernal system that tortures and enslaves the great majority of ordinary people.

Mr. Conrad has touched on some sensitive issues, particularly in this wildly contentious election year, by placing Doug and Richard in an impossible quandary: on the one hand is the firm’s insistence on good community relations with even the most rambunctious elements of the minority population; and on the other, the ability of a few delinquents to make Doug and Richard lose their cool at the very moment their superiors choose to arrive on the scene. When the inevitable slips of the tongue do occur, one does not know whether to laugh sadistically or groan sympathetically.

The two wives, Jen and Laurie, are quietly and subtly supportive without indulging the eccentric explosions of their beleaguered husbands. In short, Mr. Conrad has managed to generate humor and drama out of the everyday predicaments of real people without either preaching or fantasizing about some ideal alternative to the money-grubbing world we inhabit.

The talented ensemble players fit seamlessly into the writer-director’s controlled patterns of dispensing information from a variety of viewpoints amid sudden transitions from the impersonal to the subjective. All in all, The Promotion deserves to be remembered fondly when this year’s award season comes rolling around. At last, we have a completely and profoundly American movie with all the classical skills of timing, editing and character development that we associate nostalgically with some Hollywood golden age.

  Sean William Scott, John C. Reilly Scan Well in Supermarket Sweep