John C. Reilly long ago established himself as one of our best film actors. He's quickly emerging as one of our funniest actors as well, thanks to turns in Prairie Home Companion, Year Of The Dog, Talledega Nights, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Reilly's evolution from theater-trained thespian to funnyman continues with a standout turn in The Promotion as a heartbreakingly fragile former biker/drug addict just barely hanging onto his hard-won happiness and sobriety in the face of fearsome professional competition with an archrival played by Seann William Scott.
The directorial debut of screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Weather Man, Pursuit Of Happyness), The Promotion casts Scott as an ambitious, unsatisfied Chicagoland grocery-chain employee who seizes upon a potential opportunity to become the manager of a new store as a chance to finally kick his undistinguished career into high gear. His primary competition for the promotion is Reilly, a happily married man who turned his life around after a misspent youth filled with drugs and bad behavior. As the competition grows increasingly fierce, Scott resorts to drastic tactics to sabotage his rival's career and life.
In a simultaneously interesting and frustrating subversion of movie norms, The Promotion features a protagonist (Scott) who repeatedly does jerky, unsympathetic things that make him unlikable and an antagonist (Reilly) who's a big, gangly, good-natured pussycat who becomes increasingly likable as the film progresses. In the film's best scene, Reilly gets big laughs simply by squirming in his seat and blinking uncomfortably while unconvincingly explaining to his corporate bosses why the phrase "cutting the cheese" doesn't mean the same thing in his native Canada as it does to Americans. The Promotion shares many of the strengths and weaknesses as The Weatherman. It's all over the place tonally, shifting gracelessly from broad comedy to character-based, observational humor to drama, and ends on a distinctly unsatisfying note. Yet it's also likable, charming, low-key, and graced with some great moments, most courtesy of Reilly and a supporting cast that includes Fred Armisen as Scott's boss, Jenna Fischer as his wife, and a cameo by Jason Bateman as a firewalker instructor.† In a summer of monolithic blockbusters and high-concept fare, there's something appealingly modest about The Promotion. It's a sweet, human movie, if not an entirely successful one.