By Ray Pride
A lot of humor about office work participates in whatever soul-deadening attributes there are to a day of regimented tasks. From Dilbert to The Onion, underlying bitterness rules: day after day you’re expected to laugh at the idea that your life is shit, your diet is shit, your job is shit, and you know what? You are shit.
The English original of “The Office” is more about malfeasance and malapropism, about raging egos of small people, and the American variation found its footing in the giddy range of its characters (and respective actors). Still, it’s a gratifying surprise to find that Chicago-based screenwriter Steve Conrad’s auspicious directorial debut, capturing the rivalry between two men, mild-mannered, levelheaded Doug (Sean William Scott) and eccentric Québécois transplant Richard (John C. Reilly), for a manager’s job at a supermarket, is a likeable, often-tender, lovingly paced comedy of no small charm, a small miracle in an age of accelerated pacing and masticated punch lines. There’s a clean visual scheme to Conrad’s images as well, especially in the supermarket set, which amuses without soothing.
The calm of Scott’s performance is notable, but Reilly manages to bring seriousness to even his character’s most ignoble moments. (The ending of the movie does something I won’t describe that remains oddly fond toward Richard.) The fluency of Reilly’s Canadian accent is part of his craft: his range of Canuckian intonations go well beyond cliché. “I love John’s accent, too,” Conrad tells me one late afternoon at Bucktown’s The Charleston. “The small things he does that make the feelings feel larger. The up-talk? And he finds the words to do that in. I really want to make a movie with him where we can totally get down for a whole shoot. It’s tough when he does some days and someone else does some days. I’d love to make a movie with him where he’s the guy. He’s gonna do it, he’s going to do a ‘Being There’ if someone lets him. Ideally, the way I’d love to see John’s career playing out, and I hope it’s what he’s hoping for, too, would be like Gene Hackman. Every five years he carries a picture, but then he does these other things where he helps everybody make their movie stronger.”
Hackman’s gift shows in reaction shots. He listens visibly. “Aw, man,” the writer of “The Weatherman” and “The Pursuit of Happyness” says with a smile. “I became fascinated, but never asked [John], who started suing him first? He comes in for an audition, you might be tempted to say, ‘Aw, I don’t know if you can play this guy’ and then he does it and he’s so interesting. What I love about Reilly, and I told him as much to his face, I didn’t know if it was an insult or a compliment, but I said, ‘John, did you ever do social studies and like you’ve got your social studies book and you’re studying the Dustbowl era? And you see the pictures of those kids? But they were also coal miners? They had faces like they’re 8 but they’re also 80? You could be in one of those pictures, you look like an old kid.’ He goes, ‘No I understand, but I’m a good dancer.'”
Conrad is also effusive about Lili Taylor, who plays Reilly’s Scottish wife, and Jenna Fischer, who in deft, small strokes manages to gently convey marital intimacy between her nurse character and her frustrated, not-yet-a-man of a husband. There’s a broad recurring gag about loud neighbors in the apartment next door, and Fisher’s whispered line readings are among the funniest things in the movie. (“Dream or real?” “Real.” “Oh my god,” she replies in an aria of intonation and “Female lions do the hunting” is an ordinary-ish observation she works wonders with.)
I latched onto one of the small gestures between the couple that sings. They’re in a prospective new house. Sunlight pours in, no furniture obscures the gleaming hardwood floor. In this unfurnished room, she’s wearing half socks. “I didn’t count on anybody ever noticing those socks, but I had a whole story for how they got to that house, to think where they are before and where they go after. Because you have to costume them, and you want it to feel right, I wanted it to help me tell the story. I pictured her coming home from work and being so excited to go see the house that she just quickly changed into that sundress and she didn’t change into what women would probably wear, which would be flip-flops or laceless sandals. I said you should be in these socks.
And then she came up with the idea she should slide across the room because it felt good. And the socks led to a weird little thing. But that part came from her. One of the cool things about shooting movies is that you can choose all these little things that help tell the story so much.”
“The Promotion” opens Friday at River East and Landmark Century.