Steve Conrad may not have been ready for his own promotion just yet.
The writer of “The Weather Man” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” directing for the first time with “The Promotion,” has taken a group of solid actors and thrown them together in a flimsy comedy. It’s weirdly off-kilter: The gags are steady and repetitive but the tone is all over the place.
The story of assistant grocery store managers Doug (Seann William Scott) and Richard (John C. Reilly), competing for the same manager gig at a new Chicago location, bounces awkwardly from light and jaunty to dryly deadpan and back again. As a result, “The Promotion” feels much longer than its brief running time and often makes you so uncomfortable that you’ll anxiously wish for it to end — or at least you’ll want to grab something from the snack aisle at Donaldson’s supermarket to pass the time.
Doug is a thoroughly mediocre assistant manager who talks himself into the notion that he’s “the leading shoo-in” to manage the new Donaldson’s store that’s under construction. Enter Richard Wellner, another assistant manager, from Quebec. “From a sister company I didn’t even know we had,” Doug laments in his frequent, low-key voiceover.
Richard is the kind of guy who listens to self-help CDs and says things like, “Gimme five,” as a bonding tactic, and who met his wife while on a Christian mission in Scotland. He can’t be a bad guy, right?
Well there’s just something about him Doug doesn’t trust, and since he and Richard are clearly being pitted against one another by the supermarket board members (led by Gil Bellows, formerly of TV’s “Ally McBeal”), Doug starts finding passive-aggressive ways to undermine his new colleague.
There are a couple of funny ideas and lines here — such as the heavyset employee who uses deodorant and mouthwash right in the middle of the aisle, then puts them back on the shelf. (It probably happens more often than we want to know.) The customer complaint cards liven things up because they’re so unexpectedly vulgar. And the casting of Reilly is intriguing as a formidable foe, since he’s made his name playing the put-upon schmo.
But Conrad, who also wrote the script, can’t decide whether he wants us to like either of these guys or root against them. Richard seems like a decent, slightly nerdy family man, but then he’ll make some outrageous racial remark in front of a group of black people. Meanwhile, Doug tries to be earnest (“Let’s make it happen!” he urges his unmotivated parking lot security guards) but he’s also happy to throw Richard under the bus in front of the higher-ups when it suits his purposes.
Jenna Fischer of “The Office” — which “The Promotion” strives to emulate — is squandered as Doug’s sweetly supportive wife. Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live,” as the store’s by-the-book manager, is relegated to saying such things as: “Hey, watch your soups,” as Doug is stacking cans. “Your soups are sloppy.” Guess we’re supposed to find humor in the minutiae of supermarket management.
Jason Bateman and Bobby Cannavale also appear in brief supporting roles; both have seen better days. But Lili Taylor fares worst of all as Richard’s wife, a role that requires her to speak in a disastrous Scottish accent.