Screenwriter Steve Conrad (THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, the underrated WEATHERMAN) makes his directorial debut with a smart, understated comedy about two assistant supermarket managers making a bid for the one big promotion they both desperately need. It's the kind of film Alexander Payne (ELECTION) once made, only without all the snarky condescension.
As assistant manager of Chicago's Donaldson's supermarket, 33-year-old Doug Stauber (Seann William Scott) has learned to smile his way through the daily indignities of his job. Inside the store Doug contends with subpar personnel and insane customers who bitch slap him for no apparent reason over boxes of Teddy Grahams, while outside the parking lot has become something out of the Wild West: Gang youths terrorize customers who then fill out negative customer feedback cards that wend their way past Doug's ineffectual boss, Scott (Fred Armisen), and straight to the ball-busting head of the Donaldson's board (Gil Bellows). But there's a bright light at the end Doug's aisle: A new Donaldson's market is scheduled to open and Scott assures Doug that he's a "shoo-in" for store manager. Excited by what seems like a sure thing, Doug and his wife, Jen (Jenna Fischer), nurse to unctuous pediatric plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Timms (Bobby Cannavale), who simply calls Doug "Teddy Grahams," start looking to move out of their crappy apartment and into a real house of their very own. And then, across Doug's impossibly blue sky, a Canadian cloud named Richard Welhmer (John C. Reilly, with a spot-on Canadian accent) comes blowing in behind the wheel of a battered Lincoln Continental. Doug's wife, Laurie (Lili Taylor), has been transferred to Chicago and Richard, a 6-year veteran of Donaldson's Quebec sister company, has taken a job as Doug's co-assistant manager. Doug is no longer the shoo-in for the new management position he once thought he was, and the first sign of trouble comes when Richard jumps in and takes Doug's meeting with the all-important Pepsi rep (Joe Farina) who, it turns out, is also Richard's 12-step sponsor. Richard is a recovering drug abuser and alcoholic, and getting the promotion would mean that his life is finally getting back on track. For Doug, it means his entire future and his life savings: Lying to Jen about already getting the job, Doug puts a $12,000, non-refundable deposit on their dream home. The battle of wits and wills for supermarket supremacy is on.
Conrad's script surprises at nearly every turn. Far from a crude, EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH smack down, the film is all about the ethical dilemma Doug (nicely played by Scott) soon faces when it comes to his new nemesis. A good natured hick whose ambition doesn't go much further than the well-being of his wife and child, Richard is an easy mark whom Doug has little trouble setting up to take one embarrassing fall after another. But if Doug does prove his breadwinning "manhood" by getting the promotion, what sort of man will he have become? And in beating Richard, will the best man have truly won? Wedged into a string of high-profile Hollywood comedies (TALLADEGA NIGHTS, DEWEY COX, the upcoming STEP BROTHERS) this thoughtful, modest film provides Reilly with a good opportunity to do the fine-tuned character work he does so well. The scene in which he attempts to defend the deli department's "cut the cheese" poster in front of the board is both hilarious and perfectly poignant. leave a comment --Ken Fox