A grocery comedy that's stocked with gentle fun

Posted: June 13, 2008

Steve Conrad's The Promotion isn't exactly the sort of high-concept comedy that's all about, oh, I don't know, an Israeli commando-turned-coiffeur. But that's actually one of this low-key, oddball indie's strengths: It's totally down-to-earth, as real as a trip to the supermarket.

Which, in fact, is where a good deal of the Chicago-set comedy takes place: in the aisles, checkout lanes and parking lot of Donaldson's, a grocery that prides itself on customer satisfaction, and which is in the process of opening a new store.

Which means that Doug (Seann William Scott) and Richard (John C. Reilly), both assistant managers, will be competing for the top job at the new market. Doug and his wife, Jen (Jenna Fischer), are a perfectly nice couple ready to buy into the American Dream. A promotion to manager would bring in enough to afford a down payment on a house - just. And Doug thinks he's a lock.

Enter Richard - a Canadian, no less - and his wife, Laurie (Lili Taylor). Richard shows up at the store, pins on his assistant manager's nametag, and suddenly Doug's prospects for advancement aren't so certain anymore.

The directing debut of Conrad, a screenwriter whose credits include The Pursuit of Happyness, The Promotion uses the structure of a workplace comedy to pose gentle moral and ethical questions about treating people right (or wrong), about honor and ambition, truth-telling and back-stabbing.

Scott, the go-to guy in broad farces, brings dorkiness and decency to this quieter, subtler role - you feel for the guy. And Reilly, whose character comes with plenty of baggage, is variously funny and tragic as he tries to stay on the straight and narrow, in pursuit of a job that he needs for both his economic and mental well-being.

The Promotion boasts the usual roster of coworkers and corporate types: the manager that follows orders from HQ; the grocery clerks who couldn't care less, the meat department jokers, the execs that come around to check on things, but don't really have a clue.

Writer-director Conrad does have a clue, however, and it informs this bittersweet satire.

The Promotion *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Steve Conrad. With Seann William Scott, John C. Reilly, Lili Taylor and Jenna Fischer. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, drugs, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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