Friday, June 13, 2008

Off the beaten track: Work and steroids

"The Promotion" has been drubbed by many critics, most of whom saw it as lifeless and laughless. Such appraisals aren't entirely without merit, but this comedy from Steven Conrad, who wrote the screenplay for Will Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness," deserves credit for trying to be about something, namely the downside of competition in the workplace. Set mostly in a mid-sized supermarket, the movie puts one in mind of an old joke:

Question: "Why are the battles in academia so vicious?" Answer: "Because the stakes are so low."

In this deadpan comedy two schlubs vie for the position of general manager at a new supermarket. Seann William Scott tries to put Stifler (the unashamedly crude character from the "American Pie" movies) behind him. This time out, he's Doug, a nice guy who wants a promotion from the supermarket chain that employs him. Doug looks like a "shoo-in," but doubt arises when a Canadian (John C. Reilly) arrives to compete for the same job.

Conrad, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps his movie on a narrow track. The characters engage in paltry acts of aggression, sometimes reversing course for moments of shared desperation. Both men have major emotional investments in landing a management job. Scott's Doug tells his wife (Jenna Fischer) that the promotion is a sure thing, and commits to buying a house. Reilly's Richard is a recovering alcoholic who wants to prove that he can handle maturity.

All of this points to a comedy that finds modest amounts of humor in a dreary work environment while also showing that there's dignity in being what Doug calls "a good grocer." It's nice to see Scott extend his reach, and Reilly always finds some depth in his characters, but two downtrodden men don't make for the liveliest of comedies. As a result, "The Promotion" comes close to defining what's meant by a minor movie. Very minor.

If you're looking for something a little different this weekend, you may want to try "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," a documentary about steroid use and the all-American desire to be...well...bigger, stronger and faster.

Body builder Christopher Bell -- who doesn't juice -- explores steroid use among competitive athletes, but his film lifts the most weight when it deals with Bell's family, a couple of brothers who use steroids to advance careers in power lifting and professional wrestling.

Despite some sad emotional moments and Bell's anti-drug tilt, the film isn't a total diatribe against steroids; it's a thorough look at a hot topic, and some of Bell's interviewees see nothing wrong with making drugs an acceptable part of sports.

Funny and personal, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" entertains and informs. The movie may also leave you wondering what kinds of discussions went on among the somewhat conflicted members of the Bell family after they screened the film. But, hey, that might be another documentary.

No comments: