‘Employee of the Month’

Unless you’re the Farrelly brothers, the balancing act between fuzzy warmth and broad humor is a risky gamble.

By: Bob Brown
   The main punch line in this tepid comedy is "big-box store." At least that’s the running gag. You have to believe that Sam’s Club or anything resembling it is inherently funny, otherwise the jokes fall flat.
   The producers misfired on that assumption. But then they tried to populate the cast with "comics" who could bring bland material to life. Unfortunately, you can’t just mix a standup comic with a goofy setting and expect magic.
   Greg Coolidge, a sometime actor and Red Bank native, makes his feature-length debut as director, working with the untested talents of writers Don Calame and Chris Conroy. Maybe the blessing is that the team didn’t overreach their capabilities. The film doesn’t stretch anyone too much, least of all the actors.
   On the plus side, the film is more often sweet than hilarious, pitting two competitive males against each other for the favors of the big-box store cutie. Zack (comedian Dane Cook) is a slacker who works hard at not lifting a finger. That’s why he’s stuck as a box boy in the local Super Club. His motley crew of downwardly mobile co-workers include slow-witted Russell (Harland Williams); Iqbal (Brian George), father to 36 children; and optician Lon (Andy Dick), whose glasses are so thick that he can’t read his own watch to tell time.
   Zack’s nemesis is the perennial Employee of the Month, Vince (Dax Shepard), a cashier who is on the verge of breaking the record for holding that honor more times than anyone else in the South West Region. His toady is the diminutive Jorge (Efren Ramirez, better known as Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite).
   The balance of power is upset when a new cashier, Amy (Jessica Simpson, with her cleavage in a supporting role), arrives from another region. After Amy’s meet-cute with Zack on her first day, his team plunders her personnel file, where it is revealed that she only sleeps with guys who are Employee of the Month. (One hopes Sam’s Club does not keep tabs that close on its employees.) Zack’s competitive juices are stirred, and he strives to beat Vince at his own game and win the honor and the girl.
   If Cook is a talented stand-up comic, he’s never given the chance to spread his comedic wings in the script. Instead, he plays a likeable, laid-back, teddy-bear kind of guy who lives with his "Grams" (Barbara Dodd in an amusing small role) and is not a man to hit on girls on the first date.
   Aside from Shepard, whose Vince is a smarmy, self-inflated virtuoso of the cash register, most of the humor is in bit parts. Store manager Glen Gary (broadly and hilariously play by Tim Bagley) is a wide-grinned cheerleader for his Super Club team. But he nearly falls apart when his older brother, Glen Ross (get it?) from corporate headquarters, is scheduled to drop by for an inspection. Ross (Danny Woodburn, a Seinfeld alumnus) is 4 feet tall and wields a mean cane on Gary’s, or anyone else’s, shins if he thinks standards are slipping.
   Iqbal’s gambling and his brood are running gags. He holds a birthday party for one of his 30-odd kids. When his co-workers wonder which kid’s birthday it is, Iqbal shrugs and says, "Whoever blows out the candles first gets the presents."
   Some very funny talents are wasted in the movie. Andy Dick should have been given more to work with than his one-trick nearsighted optician is allowed. The dim-witted hulk of a security guard Semi (Marcello Thedford) could have been funnier if he had more time on-screen and, dare one say it, a more nuanced role. Instead, he seems more pathetic than funny.
   Lacking wit, the dialogue is pumped with crude sexual humor for the infrequent laugh lines, referring to various parts of the male and female anatomy. And, as always, when all else falls flat, bring in flatulence, both auditory and olfactory.
   America’s hyper-consumerism also comes under the knife. The fact that you can buy virtually anything in warehouse quantities is ripe for ridicule. On his first dinner date with Amy, Zack asks casually, "Have another case of Merlot?" The camera pans back to reveal their table is situated in the middle of Super Club’s picnic-furniture section after-hours. In one of his more helpful customer encounters, Zack tries to help a woman load a bargain-rate pine coffin onto her cart. It’s for her husband, who isn’t dead yet, but she can’t resist the price.
   If you’re not the Farrelly brothers, this balancing act between fuzzy warmth and broad humor is a risky gamble. Falling somewhere between the two, and compromising both, this movie fails to roll you in the aisles or bring you to tears. Instead it’s merely pleasant. For a comedy whose production notes promise is "hilarious" and "laugh-out-loud funny," that’s fatal.
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, and language.