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A labored `Employee' just doesn't quite work

Stand-up comic Dane Cook and tabloid queen Jessica Simpson can generate only a bargain-basement level of chemistry in this oddly surreal comedy.

October 06, 2006|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

As it opens to the staccato electro-pop of Devo's cover of the R&B tune "Working in the Coal Mine," director Greg Coolidge's debut feature "Employee of the Month" shows the goings-on in a big-box retail store, here named Super Club. Shoppers reach for oversize tubs of hair gel or extra-large boxes of condoms as workers file into their places for another day of consumer paradise at a discount. It is the last time the film, with a screenplay credited to Coolidge, Don Calame and Chris Conroy, will engage meaningfully with its rather loaded setting, which only underlines the mindless, distracted vapidity of the main action.

Zack (stand-up comic Dane Cook) has been an entry-level box boy for going on 10 years, while his co-worker Vince (Dax Shepard) has risen up the moderate ladder of promotions that will place him on a management track. Vince is in line to win "Employee of the Month" for the 18th straight time, when a pretty new cashier (singer and tabloid staple Jessica Simpson) transfers in from another store and is rumored to date only "E. of M." winners. After she offers passing encouragement to both men, Zack engages his longtime nemesis Vince in a battle for the month's title.

Cook's stage persona is based on exaggeration and repetition, as his outsized gestures and elongated pronunciations make bullet points for where the punch lines come in. Stripped of his usual delivery, he struggles to convey regular-guy likability, coming across instead as alternately flat or arrogant.

At one point Cook's character goes on to Simpson about how great it is to meet a beautiful girl who is also so cool. If only her part had some trace of character to convey that she were anything but blandly "the girl." From the moment of her entrance, a bouncy, slo-mo walk across the store, Simpson is asked to do nothing more than fulfill the film's prerequisite for boobs and teeth and shiny hair. In that respect she inhabits her role accordingly.

The film never gets at the emotional drudgery or actual labor of working, or even particularly pauses to consider the essential smallness of the Employee of the Month contest, grown men competing literally for a daily gold star. This may be a just-for-fun comedy, but that shouldn't mean that it must entirely disconnect from the world.


`Employee of the Month'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, and language

A Lionsgate release. Director Greg Coolidge. Screenplay Don Calame, Chris Conroy, Greg Coolidge. Story Don Calame, Chris Conroy. Director of photography Anthony B. Richmond. Editors Kimberley Ray, Tom Lewis. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

In general release.

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