The Promotion (2008)
Written by Steve Conrad
Directed by Steve Conrad
Produced by Dimension Films
Running time: 86 minutes
By Joe Valdez
So, What’s This About?
“Hi, I’m Doug Stauber. I’m assistant manager at Donaldson’s Grocery, where customers come first. Even customers who are nuts,” explains Stauber (Seann William Scott) as a man babbling in some unknown language harangues him over a box of Teddy Grahams, slaps Stauber in the face and flees the store. Despite his unenviable job, Stauber tries to stay positive, hoping to earn a promotion to full manager of a new Donaldson’s. With assurances from his clueless boss (Fred Armisen) that he’s “a shoe-in”, Stauber buys a house so that he and his wife (Jenna Fischer) will no longer have to endure the banjo playing couple next door.
Trouble arrives from Quebec, where assistant manager Richard Wehlner (John C. Reilly) transfers from a Canadian store. With his Scottish wife (Lili Taylor) in tow, the born again, exceedingly nice Wehlner reveals he’s applied for the managerial position Stauber desperately needs. Neither man wins over their needling area manager (Gil Bellows): the tightly wound Stauber eventually blows his cool with a crew of antagonistic black kids who hang out in the parking lot, while Wehlner — an addict in recovery — seems a bit slow paced for Chicago. As their competition becomes more intense, niceties between the men quickly go out the window.
Who Made It?
Steve Conrad grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but ultimately made his way to Northwestern University, where he got involved with the media group Chicago Filmmakers and directed a few shorts. An exercise assigned to him in a creative writing class about two old men in a park became the basis for a screenplay Conrad wrote at the age of 19 titled Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. The script not only landed Conrad an agent, it was produced in 1993, with Robert Duvall and Richard Harris starring. The film was a commercial failure, but worse, Conrad struggled for the next 12 years, going into debt and falling out of the industry, unable to support himself as a writer.
A script Conrad banged out in 10 days titled The Weather Man brought him back, filmed in 2004 starring Nicolas Cage. It wasn’t a hit either, but a life story Conrad had been entrusted with adapting — The Pursuit of Happyness — was a blockbuster. While the Will Smith drama was still shooting in 2005, the heat around Conrad and his latest script — Quebec — got the attention of Chicago-based producer Steven A. Jones and an executive VP at Hyde Park Entertainment named Jessika Borsiczky Goyer. The pair optioned the script and when Seann William Scott agreed to play the lead, Dimension Films stepped up to bankroll Conrad’s directorial debut, which would change its title to The Promotion.
How’d They Do It?
Talking with AustinDaze correspondent Bree Perlman in June 2008, Steve Conrad recalled the genesis of The Promotion. “About six years ago I was just writing a lot about men and work and the different dramas and conflicts that happen in the work place. I felt like I had a few more things to say about work but I wanted to write from the perspective of a younger person who had reached a phase of life where they realize there are demands on them to provide for their loved ones. I wanted the character to be in his early 30s and not be exceptional; to not be able to play the violin or be a physician. He was one of those kids that didn’t buckle down in school. I wanted a C student to wake up one day and realize he is in a race to carve out some space in the world.”
“Anyway I watched some weird stuff happen in my neighborhood grocery store with this assistant manager. My neighborhood is strange and tense — it’s a mix of professionals and street gangs. There was this grocery store employee who is like 30 and he was on the far side of the parking lot, the other side of which was occupied by this gang. The gang was messing around and just slinging curses at the customers and I thought: ‘Wow, this kid is going to have to walk over there and ask these guys politely to leave.’ And I thought: ‘They aren’t going to listen to him.’ This is going to be good. He walks over and they completely ripped him to pieces. He was demeaned and humiliated. The only thing he had to represent his authority was this little yellow vest that said ‘Courtesy Patrol’ on it. And on the back it said, ‘Have a nice day.’”
Conrad continued, “Part of me thought it was the funniest thing but I was also moved to admire him greatly because he went back to work. He didn’t go jump in front of a bus or take off his uniform and walk home naked. He didn’t quit. I found that, after having laughed at it, I was overcome with total admiration for the strength of will for this kid to just go back to work — because you know tomorrow it’s going to be the exact same. And I thought I could make a movie that demonstrates that you win when you don’t quit like that. I also realized the landscape was great because you can make a smaller movie if you have the grocery store but get a bigger picture because you have the battleground for this. So started messing around with grocery store comedy.”
Jim Carrey spent time attached to the Richard Wehlner role and was interested in seeing Tom Cruise play the straight man opposite him. Neither of those options panned out and Conrad went to Seann William Scott instead. “I wanted Seann for The Promotion really, really early. He’s very good at making people laugh, which is beyond a knack: It’s a skill. I knew my movie wouldn’t go as broad as the things he’d done before, but if he could make me laugh in that setting, he could make me laugh in other settings for sure. He actually came recommended to me from Old School [director Todd Phillips], who said, ‘Look, he stole a scene from Will Ferrell, and that’s not easy to do. You should take him seriously.’”
With Seann William Scott on board, Dimension Films agreed to bankroll the picture at a budget of $6.4 million. John C. Reilly — finally getting attention as a comic actor — joined him and a 30-day shooting schedule commenced July 2006, with director of photography Lawrence Sher behind the camera. Conrad recalled, “We shot over the summer in Chicago, and our summers are as hard as our winters, just in the opposite way. It was hot outside, and then we went inside we couldn’t run the air conditioners because the sound of the machines kept killing our sound, so, we shot without any air conditioning. And it’s, you know, there’s harder jobs than that, but it was unpleasant for sure. We had food that was not being warmed and not being cooled and so after two days, it wasn’t edible, and became sort of an awful environment to work in.”
Screened March 2008 at the South By Southwest Music and Film Festival in Austin, The Promotion went over great with an audience, but presented marketing challenges for Dimension. Conrad mused, “I think I stay in the awkward moment too long. I live in it. I make a scene around it. And there’s often an energy in watching films where some people just want to get to the ‘higher moment’ … But at some point — and this is another way I miss people — you know the pay-off, the fulfillment of what the character is trying to chase, can feel very, very modest, unless it’s you. Unless it’s you trying to make a difference in renting or buying your house. I think, at the end of the day, people don’t want it to be that small in the movies.”
Critics registered indifference. Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “It’s one of those off-balance movies that seems searching for the right tone.” Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: “The Promotion edges toward some pretty bleak stuff. Then it steps back and laughs, like an office slacker.” Josh Rosenblatt, The Austin Chronicle: “Over and over again, The Promotion hints at the movie it might have been — slapstick comedy or social satire or relationship tragedy or, most promisingly, an exploration of the damaged, neutered American male psyche — if it had just bothered to decide which movie it wanted to be. Instead, it tries to be everything at once and ends up failing to be much of anything at all.”
Opening June 2008 in the United States, The Promotion never expanded beyond 81 theaters, where it only made $408,709. Conrad remained upbeat about his film’s reception. “My dear friends, the people who when I make laugh it means the most to me, they don’t even go to movies anymore. They rip ’em or they watch ’em on DVD. It’s hard to say. And it shouldn’t be that immediate. I think there’s time for movies to get under your bones and last more than two weekends. For me, just staying busy is my aim, just trying to keep a job. My aim in shooting it was just trying not to be fired, literally. I’m working for Harvey and Bob Weinstein — it’s not to be taken for granted. They care about their movies. They watch the dailies. They watch the auditions. So, they know what you’re up to. And if you’re ‘in it’, they know how deeply in it you are.”
Should I Care?
The Promotion is so sharp edged and so funny — I laughed three times in the first three minutes — that before you can really wonder if it’s going to stay this good, it doesn’t. First-time director Steve Conrad is all over the shop, veering from broad office satire to buddy movie to dark comedy to light drama and at its lowest point, a motivational seminar for the contemporary male. Despised equally by upper management and by their goofy employees, Scott and Reilly’s characters seem kicked in the balls far more often than really called for, while neither Jenna Fischer nor Lili Taylor (looking luminescent) are permitted to have much of an impact on the story at all.
While I was never able to get comfortable with the concept of Seann William Scott playing the straight man (part of the problem lies with Conrad for writing such a lackluster part), the reason to watch The Promotion is John C. (Motherfuckin’) Reilly. Perpetrating a pitch perfect Canadian accent and embodying all the good natured, White Bread goofiness our northern neighbors can exhibit, Reilly is so good, bringing wit and sympathy to the one character that seems to have excited Conrad: a loser trying to keep it together long enough to gain some respect out of life. Conrad had The King of Comedy in his sights here, but even if he misses the bullseye, the dude tries.
Where’d You Get All of This?
“The Long Road Back to the Big Screen” By Ed Koziarski. The Chicago Reader, 6 March 2008
“Seann William Scott and Steve Conrad” By David Wolinsky. The A.V. Club, 5 June 2008
“The Promotion writer/director Steve Conrad” By Bree Perlman. AustinDaze, 18 June 2008
The Promotion. DVD audio commentary by Steve Conrad, Jessika Borsiczky Goyer and Steven A. Jones. Dimension Home Video (2008)
“The Promotion’s Steve Conrad Promotes Himself” By Brian Tallerico. The DeadBolt