In 1999, Alexander Payne released Election, his small, deep, near-perfect comedy charting a Midwest high school's race for student body president. With mathematical precision and a Christlike empathy for his characters, Payne cracked open a whole world of American ambition and failure and reminded a generation of filmmakers of the great comic rewards to be derived from the collision of high drama and a seemingly mundane setting. Charting the competition for a new management position in a Midwest supermarket, Steve Conrad's The Promotion is a proud child of Election—a fact of which Conrad makes no secret. From the subject matter and narrative voiceovers to the full-on homage shots, Conrad's film is colored and contextualized by Payne's classic, but eventually finds its legs and grows into something of its own.
At the center of The Promotion is Doug (American Pie's Seann William Scott), a sweet, simple guy with a sweet, devoted girlfriend (The Office's Jenna Fischer) and big dreams of supermarket management. Doug's dreams are challenged by the arrival of Richard (John C. Reilly), a recent transplant from Canada with a complicated past, an appetite for self-improvement, and managerial ambitions of his own. What follows is a charmingly klutzy battle for the brass ring—a war of shlumps fought with customer comment cards, proper workplace etiquette, and incriminating wrist supports. Where Election dealt in archetypal characters and Big Ideas, The Promotion is content to let its cast remain life-sized and messily human. It doesn't reach the heights of Election, but it approaches that film's depth, finding a wealth of life (thanks in part to its uniformly strong cast) in a thin, grubby world where a man's dreams of advancement can be irrevocably undone by the appearance of a small plastic cup at a final job interview.