Thursday, January 25, 2007

Employee of the Month

Director: Greg Coolidge
Starring: Dane Cook, Jessica Simpson, Dax Shepard, Efren Ramirez, Andy Dick, Tim Bagely, Brian George, Danny Woodburn
Running Time: 103 min.

Rating: PG-13

** (out of ****)

Jessica Simpson may look great but she can't act to save her life in Employee of the Month. I figured I would get this out of the way immediately since it's undoubtedly the part of the review everyone is most interested in, and likely not surprised at all to read. I'm not saying this to pick on her, as I'm sure she's probably a very nice person who tried her best with what she was given, which in her defense wasn't much. I'm saying this because much of whether we care about this movie hinges on her (in)ability to call upon a wide variety of emotions and make us care about her relationship with the main character.

Instead we're too distracted by her wooden, stilted performance that sucks all the life out of this movie like a leech. It's a shame too, because there are some good things about this film and it had a lot of potential. Instead it ends up being largely forgettable with a couple of decent laughs along the way. As a vehicle for comedian Dane Cook the movie mostly succeeds and he comes out of this unscathed. Simpson isn't so fortunate.

Cook plays Zach Bradley, a slacker "box boy" at Super Club, a Costco-like wholesale retail store. His arch-nemesis is head cashier Vince Downey (Dax Shepard) who has seventeen consecutive "Employee of the Month" titles under his belt and is going for a company record eighteenth. He also has the fastest register "ring time" in the Southwest region, which provides the film's funniest joke as we watch him juggle items and pass them to his "wing man" Jorge ( Napoleon Dynamite's Efren Ramirez) as hot women cheer him on, drooling over his impressive cashiering skills. This is so stupid it's actually funny and Shepard plays it just right. Zach has exactly zero "Employee of the Month" titles to his name, but hopes to change his slacking ways with the arrival of Amy (Simpson), a hot new cashier who's tranferred from another store and is rumored to only date employees of the month. A war begins as Zach attempts to become a model worker and thwart Vince's attempts to seduce Amy.

The fact that Zach lives with his grandmother and is slacking his life away is only vaguely referenced because actually exploring that avenue may give the film some insight and intelligence. Instead the filmmakers chose to have Amy stand there like a moron in tops that accentuate her breast size while Zach and Vince battle it out for her affection. I have to admit some of the stuff was funny such as Zach selling Vince's car to a customer and a timed cashiering face-off between the two at the film's end. Andy Dick and Harland Williams are on hand as the token goofy co-workers a movie like this is required to contain. That reminded me that usually when I see Andy Dick in a movie I laugh. Of course, I'm laughing at him but the point remains the same: I laugh. This time I didn't. As a nearly blind, bespeckled one-hour photo employee, he looks like he's auditioning for the sequel to Mr. Magoo.

The movie strives to create the workplace atmosphere of an Office Space or even an Empire Records, but not many of the supporting characters are funny. The movie works best when it's spoofing retail management and Tim Bagely gives a terrific performance as the clueless manager of the store. He does so good a job it's almost as if he walked onto the wrong set thinking he'd be involved in a smart, subversive comedy. His feud with his midget brother boss (well played by Danny Woodburn) is actually pretty funny and I wish more time were spent on it. How sad is that? I'm afraid to even mention this because it may have give the studio an idea for a sequel.

I couldn't help thinking of Clerks II when I watched this. That movie took place in a similar setting, but it cared about it's characters and bothered to surround them with a good story that had heart. It feels wrong to even mention that film in the same breath as this movie. Employee of the Month arrogantly expects us to care about Zach's quest to bed Amy when they do nothing to let us know or like his character and Simpson gives the performance of a wooden board. I noticed at the end of the film the producer credited with this mess is Joe Simpson, who's Machiavellian control over his daughters' careers has officially reached alarming levels and is now doing more harm to us than them.

America fell in love with Jessica when she starred in Newlyweds because of her great looks, quirky personality and charisma. MTV pulled off a great magic act because only one of those traits (actually two) is on display here with this role not playing to any of her strengths, if she had any. During the movie I started wondering how different (and better) the whole enterprise would have been had a different actress been cast in the Amy role. One who could, you know, act and show emotion. I've never seen Ashlee Simpson in a movie but I'm willing to bet even she'd do a better job than her sister here. She couldn't possibly be worse.

The good news is that Dane Cook does somewhat prove he has what it takes to be a leading man in a comedy as he's likable and funny, it just would be nice to see him star in a good one. He'll survive this. Dax Shepard does one better though as he actually seems like the only person in the cast who knows what kind of movie he's in and what he should do. He knows just how to walk the line between being an asshole and still getting the laughs. With the material he had to work with here, that's nothing short of a small miracle. Strangely though, the filmmakers seem to think their bread is buttered with the Cook and Simpson pairing despite the fact Cook would likely have better chemistry with a blow-up doll. Employee of the Month does have a couple of moments, but unfortunately the film, like it's characters, is just punching the clock.

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