Corrections were made to this review on Oct. 2, 2006.
The slackers take on the brown-nosers in “Employee of the Month,” a spoof of consumerism and competition that’s slightly smarter than might be expected for a pic aimed at the Jessica Simpson demographic. Co-writer-director Greg Coolidge’s hyphenate debut displays the influence of Mike Judge’s “Office Space” on the ’90s generation, including that pic’s deadpan skewering of soulless corporate life. But “Employee” shifts the arena from the office to a Costco-like superstore. Falling short of being truly memorable but sharper than the general slagheap of comedies, pic will scan reasonably good biz at theatrical checkout stands.
At a New Mexico-based branch of the Super Club membership store, longtime box boy Zack (standup comic Dane Cook) is inspired by hot new clerk Amy (Simpson) to compete for the title of “employee of the month,” which Vince (Dax Shepard) has won 17 straight times.
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Normally, languid Zack couldn’t care less what Vince does, let alone what management thinks. But hearing that Amy sleeps with any guy who wins the monthly award — and despising goody-good Vince — spurs Zack to go mano-a-mano with the ace checkout clerk, known as “the fastest hands in the Southwest.”
Baseball fans (who will be tickled by an amusing third-act sequence) might think of the Vince-Zack contest as the Yankees vs. a perennial basement-dweller like the Pirates, and so it’s not surprising that Vince immediately racks up the daily gold stars.
Coolidge, cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond and particularly production designer Jon Gary Steele appear to enjoy using the store’s cavernous space and its huge web of aisles as an absurdly overgrown stage. Beyond its physically realistic depiction of shopping culture run amok, “Employee of the Month” is most enjoyable in its many asides. These include Vince habitually using bagboy and loyal sycophant Jorge (Efren Ramirez) as his key ally in the contest, and store boss Glen Gary (Tim Bagley) shuddering when he learns his brutish brother named — in a cheeky nod to David Mamet — Glen Ross (Danny Woodburn), is paying a visitfrom Super Club’s corporate offices.
Pic’s midsection, with the increasingly likable Zack threatening to overcome Vince’s early lead, is unexpectedly funny and involving. Last section is much less so, mainly because Coolidge’s script (co-written with Don Calame and Chris Conroy) appears duty-bound to obey every rule of conventional comedy plotting, down to the hero’s seeming defeat and last-minute reprieve. This is where the movie seems to lose its bearings as a genuine post-“Office Space” American comedy and turns into just another formulaic laffer, albeit with a slightly more caustic edge than most.
Camaraderie in cast is a key to pic’s enjoyment, delivered by the charismatic Cook, alongside his buddies, played by Brian George, Andy Dick (for once, not manic) and Harland Williams, with Bagley, Ramirez and Woodburn in hilarious standout turns. Shepard somewhat overplays his hand as the seemingly lordly Vince, while Simpson won’t win new converts in a blah perf. Alas, Marcello Thedford as a slow-witted African American guard flirts with a role right out of the Stepin Fetchit era.
Even given that the production look is meant to depict a bland, plain-wrap world where products matter more than people, print screened was unusually blanched and lacking in sharpness. Product placement extends as far as the eye can see.