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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The enormous success of comedian Dane Cook is no doubt due almost as much to his winning personality as it is to his sense of humor. There’s something about Cook’s affable manner that makes his comedy even funnier. Whereas some comedians come off like chronic cynics, Cook is more like your best buddy – the guy who endlessly amuses you with snarky comments and frat boy jokes. His transition to the big screen started with a supporting role in Waiting…, a comedy that got bogged down by its desire to have so many grossout moments per minute. Cook’s first starring role in Employee of the Month is a much more satisfying showcase for his talents.

He plays Zack Bradley, a slacker who works as a lowly “box boy” in a Costco-type store known as Super Club. Zack spends his days cruising through the store on roller skates, socializing with his co-workers, and hanging out in a faux “clubhouse” hidden behind the merchandise. His rival is Vince (Dax Shepard), a self-satisfied cashier who wows the customers with his speed and cunning behind a register. Vince’s ego extends not only to his work, but also to his beat-up old car, which he tries to convince everyone is nicer than it really is. (That he blasts “Kiss You All Over” and old Richard Marx tunes from the stereo doesn’t help.) The two guys are complete opposites: one does as little as necessary to get by, while the other will do anything to get ahead.

The intensity of their mutual hatred is fueled with the arrival of a new cashier named Amy Renfro (Jessica Simpson). Amy is blonde, pretty, and prone to wearing low-cut blouses. Both guys instantly begin making moves on her. Zack gets wind of a rumor that Amy always hopped into bed with the employee of the month at her previous job. Since he lacks the self-confidence of Vince (and the higher-status position), he figures he might have a chance with her if he could be named Super Club’s employee of the month. The idea doesn’t sit well with Vince, who has received the honor seventeen times in a row. If he makes it to eighteen, he not only breaks the record, he also wins a new car and gets a promotion.

Amy is kind to both of her co-workers, but her attention shifts to Zack when he begins getting gold stars for his improved efforts. Although Zack’s intentions start off as less than honorable, he finds that he has a lot in common with this girl. There’s definitely chemistry between them. Vince, infuriated that he finally has some competition for the honor, begins a campaign to take Zack down and win Amy for himself. Helping him is his right-hand man, Jorge (Efren Ramirez, who played Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite).

The first thing I noticed about Employee of the Month was that it isn’t another comedy where people sit around and bitch about their dead-end jobs. In fact, the characters in this movie generally like their jobs and want to be good at them. Other films like Clerks and Office Space have done the job-loathing thing to perfection. I liked that this one went a different way. Granted, Zach initially likes his job primarily for the socialization, but he still learns to emulate his rival’s conscientiousness. That the story finds honor rather than contempt in retail labor automatically makes it smarter than you might expect.

If you were to look at a copy of the script, I’m not sure you would think Employee of the Month had many funny parts. It’s the kind of comedy that depends entirely on the way the cast handles the material. There is a scene that is featured prominently in the movie’s advertising. Vince’s car is hit by a golf ball, and he leans out the window to yell: “This is an ’81 Honda. How dare you!” Is that line funny in and of itself? That’s questionable. What is funny is the way Dax Shepard delivers it. The same thing goes for many of Zack’s lines. They could easily fall flat but are made funny by Dane Cook’s perfect delivery. A cheap shot like “I found your wallet. It was in front of the herpes medication.” is made hilarious by the inflection Cook brings to it.

The two actors really make the picture work. Cook melds the vintage movie slacker prototype with his own inherent charm to turn Zack into a guy we actually root for. Shepard, on the other hand, brings freshness to the now-stereotypical jerk character. He plays up Vince’s buffoonery and vanity rather than making him a standard hateful comedy villain. The solid supporting cast includes Harland Williams, Andy Dick, and Tim Bagley (a character actor you’ve seen a million times but probably never knew his name) – all of whom score laughs as other store employees. As for Jessica Simpson…well, I feel the same way I did about her in The Dukes of Hazzard. Neither film really requires her to do much in the way of acting. She merely has to say a few lines, show massive amounts of cleavage, and walk off. In other words, she doesn’t embarrass herself, but Meryl Streep doesn’t need to worry either.

The war between Zack and Vince plays out in all kinds of wacky ways, especially during a contest to see who can scan a cartful of items the fastest. Employee of the Month is intentionally exaggerated in its depiction of the retail workplace. You can see this in the sequence that takes place inside the overly luxurious “cashier’s lounge” and in the fact that Super Club actually sells coffins. (Just wait to you see a lady trying to put one onto her cart.) While it won’t be for every taste, I really enjoyed the film’s approach. It takes an environment we’re all familiar with and gives it a good warping.

If Employee of the Month has a flaw – and I guess it does or else I wouldn’t be mentioning it – it’s that the 108-minute running time is too indulgent for the thinness of the plot. Everything could be said and done just as effectively in 90 minutes, especially since it’s pretty obvious where the story is heading anyway.

Regardless of that problem, I still liked the movie thanks largely to Dane Cook and Dax Shepard. These are funny guys who really know how to (no pun intended) sell the material. And I bought it.

( out of four)

The Upside of Anger is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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