"The Promotion" is a good, occasionally insightful workplace comedy. It's got two amiable performances from John C. Reilly and Seann William Scott, as rivals for the same job managing a new branch of a mega-grocery store in Chicago. The writer and director, Steve Conrad, works in a smooth, poppy, rhythmically entertaining style. He freezes the frame for comic effect and lays on Scott's chummy narration for transitions and asides. The broad slapstick game show you expect actually has some wit and truth about getting ahead. But the movie is such a wholesome, borderline-ecstatic embrace of the rat race that there's not much suspense about who'll win.
Scott's character, Doug, is the general manager at Donaldson's, a fictitious, expanding supermarket chain. He wants the promotion so he can move himself and his wife (Jenna Fischer) into a house and out of their small apartment, where they share a porous wall with a banjo-playing gay couple. Conrad supplies lots of little such comic aggravations. Doug's biggest headache, though, is Reilly's Richard, a chummy family man who's just driven down from a sister store in Quebec and also wants to manage the new site. These two wind up competing to wow the company's board.
Scott gets as close as he's come to playing a whole character. He's gentle, quiet, and thoughtful without ever trying to make Doug more than average. Scott himself seems like an all-American type who lacks the godly blandness of a golden boy, which makes him much more interesting to watch. After an incident in the store parking lot, Doug offers a less-than-grammatical apology to some aggravated members of the black community. It's hard to believe his terrible speech would pacify them, but Scott's charm is disarming.
The more we learn about Richard, meanwhile, the less managerial he seems. He listens to a self-help cassette on how to get ahead (in a funny sequence scored to Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle"). But at a company retreat, he's slow and lost. We know after a few scenes that he's a loser, but it takes the entire movie for Conrad to stack the whole deck against him. Reilly isn't playing the joke, he's playing the character. And if you're curious how much less delicately things might have gone on Richard's end, imagine Will Ferrell in the part. But Ferrell's antics might have made Conrad's disdain for Richard's personal weaknesses easier to take.
Watching Doug and Richard connive to advance, I thought a lot about Alexander Payne's "Election," which this movie's temper and tone evoke. What "The Promotion" lacks is the ruthlessness and desperation that drove Reese Witherspoon and eventually most of the other characters in that movie. I also thought about some of Albert Brooks's best comedies - how the men negotiate advancement with their wives (Lili Taylor plays Richard's with a Scottish accent) and how Brooks's characters's cynicism and sense of superiority were always at odds with their self-doubt as they tried to buck the system only to succumb to it. But those movies had their reservations about ambition and success, only to cynically suggest that selling out was a sad fact of life.
The Brooks version of "The Promotion" might have been called "The Shoo-In," which is what Doug's doofus manager (Fred Armisen) assures him he is. But Conrad is more sanguine. He wrote "The Weather Man" and adapted "The Pursuit of Happyness," and the characters in his movies have no misgivings about success. They work hard, and they're rewarded. All three of his movies have the same happy ending (the one here is particularly over-the-top). Conrad celebrates the corporate ethic and the men eager to serve it.