Employee of the Month

Films with satisfying surprises in their finales operate on the principle that if you were to go back and watch the film again, you’d see the puzzle pieces were there all along and that you simply hadn’t assembled them.

A cheaper way to surprise your audience, and the method used by “Employee of the Month,” is to simply lie to them. Tell them one thing up front and then, when you change everything around at the end, they’ll sure be surprised! Surprised and pissed off, but surprised.

It is bad enough that “Employee of the Month” is a bad comedy for most of its running time. It adds insult to injury when, in its last act, is also becomes a bad heist movie, with crosses and double-crosses occurring entirely at random without regard for the facts already established. This makes it a bad movie in two different genres, an impressive feat, to be sure.

Matt Dillon plays David, a man with everything. He has just gotten engaged to Sarah (Christina Applegate) and is due for a promotion at the bank he works for, where everyone loves him. But instead he gets fired, rather inexplicably, and subsequently loses Sarah, too, when she discovers he’s been cheating on her with her best friend Wendy (Andrea Bendewald).

David’s best friend is Jack, played by Steve Zahn on a sort of Steve Zahn overdrive, as if he’s compensating for people who have not seen his last five movies by being five times as wacky as he normally is. Anyway, Jack’s a coroner who steals dead people’s jewelry, and he’s totally IN YOUR FACE! And he totally says WHATEVER is on his mind, no matter how politically incorrect it is! I mean, dude, that’s gotta be freakin’ HILARIOUS!

Oy. It’s annoying, that’s what it is, and I’m a guy who likes Steve Zahn. But this dreadful script, by first-timers Mitch Rouse and Jay Leggett (Rouse directed, too), doesn’t know what to do with him. His anti-gay tirade is puzzlingly out-of-place in 2004, the sort of thing that would normally be followed by some kind of don’t-be-such-a-jerk comeuppance. It’s not, and while I have no problem with politically incorrect humor, such humor is still required to be funny, which this isn’t. Most of Zahn’s shtick is bad, in fact, making his character seem like a complete butthole, not a wacky sidekick.

The script generally suffers from under-editing. It takes some jokes too far and doesn’t take others far enough. The dialogue is forced and strained, and the humor broad and generic.

And then come the surprises. It is alarming to realize this film was made by people who don’t see any difference, in terms of entertainment value, between farcical comedy and graphic violence. It reminds me of “Bad Boys II” in that regard, attempting to foist corpses and blood upon us while still expecting us to laugh when someone gets a pie in the face. It’s ugly, sloppy filmmaking, made worse by those surprises being achieved by cheating the audience. If David tells us up front that he has just lost everything, his fiancee and his job included, and that he’s a desperate man now, then that needs to be true. They teach you that in Screenwriting 101, a course I suggest Rouse and Leggett take, several times, before being given the green light on another film.

D (1 hr., 37 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, crude dialogue, some strong violence, some nudity.)