Security to Aisle Twelve!

What's so funny about working for a living? Ask the grocery guys in The Promotion. Then commiserate with the displaced laborers Up the Yangtze without a safety net.

Chances are you’ve heard this before: “Dilbert never made sense to me until I started working for [fill in the name of the company here]. Now it’s the funniest comic strip in the world and I never miss it.” Bay Area cartoonist Scott Adams’ wildly popular daily strip about office workers understands that there’s nothing more soul-deadening — or funnier, depending on your point of view — than having to deal with people you neither like nor understand, in a confined space, day in and day out, in order to carry out the wishes of capricious corporate masters.

Writer-director Steve Conrad’s infectiously funny comedy The Promotion works a side street of Dilbertville, only in place of high-tech drones in cubicles it slips down the ladder a few rungs to the aisles of a big-city chain supermarket — the bowels of the service economy, where profit margins are slim and nothing, nothing, is too petty to be regulated. Instead of Wally, Dogbert, and the Elbonians, our go-to guys at Donaldson’s are Doug (Seann William Scott) and Richard (John C. Reilly), assistant managers jockeying for the coveted manager’s job in a new store opening soon nearby.

Shifty-eyed Doug, who tends to answer questions in monosyllables, has to deal with such problems as teenagers harassing customers in the parking lot and a deli counter worker putting up a poster proclaiming that he cuts the cheese (har har). There’s a massive painted message on the wall of the break room: STOP! TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT! Nevertheless, Doug likes it at Donaldson’s and wants to manage the new store, if only to get away from Scott the manager (Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live), who’s never around when irate customer “Teddy Graham,” a graham-cracker-eating construction worker speaking an obscure language (“It isn’t Spanish”), routinely punches Doug over a coupon dispute. Doug and his medical assistant wife (Jenna Fischer) inhabit an apartment with walls so thin that while in bed they can conduct normal-voice conversations with their next-door neighbor, a horny gay banjo instructor. So they could both use that promotion.

But so could Richard, the new guy just transferred in from Canada. At first, Richard appears to be a serious threat — he quickly gains Scott’s confidence and whispers conspiratorially with the Pepsi-Cola delivery man — but by careful observation Doug learns that 1) he is a recovering drug and alcohol addict; 2) he flusters easily; and 3) Richard is even dumber than Doug. Not only does he fall for the old “clam sauce” Spanish-language gag with a pretty Latina employee, he makes a fool of himself in front of a group of irate African-American customers with a Freudian slip about “black apples.” At home with his Scots wife (Lili Taylor, wasted in a small role), Richard challenges himself by trying to build a ship in a bottle. On the road in his ludicrous ’70s-era exec-mobile, he listens to a self-improvement audiotape. When all else fails, and it usually does, he lights up a joint.

Filmmaker Conrad tuned up for The Promotion by writing Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness and The Weather Man for Gore Verbinski and Nicolas Cage. Both those films are dull and docile compared to the razor-sharp comic pacing and hilariously deadpan situations at the grocery store. Reilly is particularly good, stripped of his bulky-dude menace and slowly, steadily sinking under his own weight. His born loser Richard is a character to savor, in a class with his work in Boogie Nights and Gangs of New York. Scott, the affable flea-brain of Mr. Woodcock, Southland Tales, and The Dukes of Hazzard, perfects his stupidity, if anything. Playing a nebbish is harder than it looks.

And let’s hear a round of applause for Gil Bellows as Mitch, leader of the pack of corporate suits who always shows up, like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, to turn even the silliest situation a shade more ridiculous. The Charleston Chew incident, the corporate retreat fire walk and bag-head test, the numerous interviews — all comic gold. It’s a wonder anything gets done, anywhere. Speaking of which, the filmmakers use the Chicago locations to nice, claustrophobic advantage. Instead of making Taylor’s character a transplant from Scotland, they might have taken advantage of her hometown connection (she was born in suburban Glencoe, Illinois) and written her a meatier part.

Lest we think that working in an American grocery store is a dead-end job, along comes Up the Yangtze to remind us that no matter how menial, pointless, or mind-numbing the Donaldson employees’ tasks might be, there’s someone in China who’s got it worse. This is definitely not a comedy.

The 2007 documentary, a Canadian production written and directed by Montreal-based Yung Chang, played the San Francisco International Film Festival in April, alongside at least two other films on the same subject, Still Life and Umbrella. They, with other recent films such as Manufactured Landscapes, seek to put the massive Three Gorges Dam project — in which the flood-prone Yangtze River was dammed for hydroelectric power, submerging nine cities and displacing upwards of two million people — in human terms.

Among the uprooted is Yu Shui, aka Cindy, a bashful teenage girl who leaves her peasant family to take a job aboard a tourist cruise ship on the river. She starts in the galley as a dishwasher but hopes to graduate to waitress, tending to the needs of the well-fed North American and European passengers taking in the spectacular scenery. Cindy may be shy, but Chen Bo Yu, who goes by the name of Jerry on the ship, fancies himself a rising star in the Chinese tourist industry. He speaks his version of colloquial English and shamelessly sucks up to the passengers, but his showboating doesn’t exactly snow his workmates — they recognize Jerry as a typical “little emperor,” the spoiled product of China’s one-child-only edict.

The shipboard irony turns pathetic onshore as we glimpse the last days of the “drowned cities,” where an emotional shopkeeper breaks down crying while describing the epochal societal shift — eminent domain on a huge scale. “China is too hard for common people,” he observes. Indeed, when Cindy’s family finally moves from their riverside shanty into an upland town, they’re forced to pay for water and vegetables for the first time in their lives. Up the Yangtze drips with irony, something only the rich can afford. With that in mind, let’s try to stay ironic as long as we can.


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