When did John C. Reilly start his wholesale transformation from soulful-but-largely-befuddled character actor into one of the strangest and hardest working comic leads in the industry? And how did he pull it off so effortlessly?
This isn’t exactly a manic freakshow like “Step Brothers” or “Talladega Nights,” and it’s not an overtly comic world like “Walk Hard,” either. There’s a human, vulnerable quality to the laughs, and most of them are hard-earned and painful. No surprise. Steve Conrad’s had an eccentric, interesting, honest career as a screenwriter. “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” was 1993. His first written by, and he got sole credit on a studio movie. Very impressive. And then according to the IMDb, he went totally dormant for twelve years.
What happened? Well, “Grumpy Old Men” happened, in part, opening two or three weeks before “Hemingway” did. That film was a huge hit, and audiences seemed comfortable sticking with one old-men-bonding movie that particular winter. And in that odd synchronized head-to-head that plays out in Hollywood sometimes (“Deep Impact” vs “Armageddon” or “Dante’s Peak” vs “Volcano”), it was “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” and, to a larger extent, Steve Conrad that lost.
It wasn’t until “The Weather Man” in 2005, with Gore Verbinski directing a very well-liked Conrad script that had bounced around town for a while, that he began to stage his comeback. The oddball little character piece wasn’t much of a presence at the box-office, but it had its fans (myself included), and this time, Conrad didn’t pull another vanishing act. Instead, he bounced right into “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which he adapted from Chris Gardner’s true story.
That was the hit that Conrad needed, evidently, and he finally leveraged that success into an opportunity to direct one of his own scripts. “The Promotion” absolutely echoes the same sensibilities we’ve seen in the other scripts he wrote. He’s not much for obvious dramatic arcs. He’s a fan of character observation and the frailities of the people he writes about, and he seems most interested in watching someone on the verge of crumbling as they struggle to keep that from happening. Seann William Scott plays Doug Stauber, an assistant manager at a grocery store. He’s on track to run a store of his own until Richard Wehlner (Reilly) is transferred in from Canada. Suddenly, Doug’s got some competition, and the two men start undermining each other and themselves in their desperation to get that better job, that better life, that escape from who they are.
These are hard laughs, especially with the economy in free fall right now. Both Doug and Richard are under awful, identifiable pressure, trying not to disappoint their wives (Jenna Fischer and Lili Taylor). More than that, though, the film really gets at the way we invest ourselves in our jobs. We are what we do, and if we’re not constantly moving up, some part of us is dying. There are few things worse than the idea that we’re not living up to our full potential. That’s the sort of thing that keeps me up nights, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Americans are haunted by failure, or even the vaguest whiff of it. Both Scott and Reilly play things fairly real, even in the biggest, broadest comic moments. I don’t think the film pulls off everything it tries to do, and it’s uneven in places, but when it’s on, I think it’s a clear indicator that Conrad’s voice should be encouraged, and I hope this is just the first of many films for him as a writer/director.