The Promotion

The only problem with “The Promotion” is that its premise of two supermarket assistant managers competing for the same job sounds formulaic. It doesn’t help that the awful, similarly themed “Employee of the Month” still lurks in audiences’ memories.

I hope this superficial resemblance does not deter people, though, because “The Promotion” proves to be a delightful surprise, consistently taking the story in directions you would not have expected. Crisply written and directed by Steven Conrad (scribe of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Weather Man”), it’s also relentlessly clever and hilarious. It’s easily one of the freshest, funniest comedies of the year.

It stars Seann William Scott as Doug Stauber, a 32-year-old assistant manager at a Chicago-area grocery store chain called Donaldson’s. He has a wife, Jen (Jenna Fischer), who’s a nurse, and they have a small apartment with thin walls, and their neighbors are banjo-playing homosexuals. Doug wants to be the old-fashioned breadwinner, support his wife, and buy a house. He’s decent and hard-working, a regular American Dream type. When Donaldson’s announces it’s building a new superstore in town, Doug is considered the frontrunner to be its manager.

But then his current store gets a new transfer from Canada. The man’s name is Richard (John C. Reilly), he’s hopelessly earnest and polite (those damn Canadians), and his job history is spotless. Suddenly Doug has competition for the new store’s manager position, and the games begin.

Or at least, that’s what you’d expect. The standard procedure here would be for Doug and Richard to sabotage one another’s efforts to get the job, probably in increasingly uproarious and improbable ways. Also, we’d expect to discover that Richard’s “friendly Canadian” thing is just an act and that he’s really a devious schemer. That would make it easier for us when, in the end, he loses the promotion and Doug — our hero — gets the job after all.

But instead, “The Promotion” goes the smarter, more interesting route. Scenes with Richard and his Scottish wife, Laurie (Lili Taylor), confirm that Richard is every bit as sincere as he seems to be. He and Doug are both reasonable, mature men. What’s more, they both deserve — and need — the promotion.

And so instead of telling lies to their boss (Fred Armisen, funny as the store’s ineffectual manager) and to the Donaldson’s corporate board of directors, Doug and Richard tell the truth. OK, and then they tell lies, too — but they feel guilty about it. The film is keenly interested in the ethics of a scenario like this, and both men struggle with their consciences over how to treat their rivals. In the end, the point isn’t whether you can get the job, but whether you can get the job and still look yourself in the mirror.

All of which is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as this key detail: The film is funny. Conrad demonstrates a rare gift for creating running gags that amuse without overstaying their welcome, and his dialogue crackles with profane, intelligent wit. He has a fascination with words, and particularly with repeating them: “shoo-in,” “schmuck,” and “crack” (as in “cracking the cheese”) all have scenes devoted to them, as does the non-word “blapple.” Conrad also mocks the business world’s appropriation of sports terms like “bear down” and “raise your game,” which are almost meaningless on the playing field and entirely meaningless in the boardroom. He comes off like a more focused, less scattershot Judd Apatow, whose films, while hilarious, tend to meander.

Conrad also proves capable as a director, with camera set-ups that go beyond the static, sitcom-style compositions used by many comedy directors. And considering that timing is the essence of comedy, and that in the movie world editing is the essence of timing, it’s remarkable how well “The Promotion” is cut together. Conrad and his editors, Myron Kerstein and Tim Streeto, know just when to leave a scene to maximize the humor, a skill found in movie comedies all too rarely.

Scott, Fischer, and Armisen all earn plenty of laughs, which is unsurprising in the case of Fischer and Armisen but maybe a little eye-opening for those who only know Scott as the jerky Stifler in the “American Pie” movies. Turns out he’s a skilled comic actor, too, and he carries “The Promotion” with exceptional agility.

But the movie truly belongs to John C. Reilly, a Hollywood veteran who has in recent years become an unlikely comedy superstar. Good heavens, the man is funny. Here, armed with a Canadian accent and a character who has a terrific backstory (which I won’t spoil for you), he’s funny whenever he’s on the screen, sometimes with nothing more than a facial expression and some uncomfortable silence. In one scene, he’s been called on the carpet for a mistake, he offers an explanation … and then we sit there and wait for what feels like an eternity to see if the bosses are buying it. The hopeful face on that goofily likable Canuck is priceless.

This is a quirky comedy that doesn’t overdo the quirk, and a grown-up film that doesn’t go too heavy on the vulgarity. It’s clearly a cut above the usual studio comedy fare, both in its technical quality and its overall laughs-per-minute ratio. It’s a shame that the film’s distributor, Dimension, has barely given this gem any promotion.

A- (1 hr., 25 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some sexual vulgarity.)