A few years ago, we were treated subjected to a retail farce known as Employee of the Month, a near-witless comedy that pitted Dane Cook and Dax Shepard against each other as moronic clerks who vie for the title of (you guessed it) Employee of the Month. I knew there was a lot of room for successful comedy in this sort of premise, but aside from a stray chuckle or two, EOTM was an entirely stale and completely sitcom-level effort.

Now comes a very small, very funny, and oddly warm-hearted flick in sort of the same vein. It's called The Promotion; it stars Sean William Scott and John C. Reilly; it was written and directed by first-timer Steve Conrad ... and if it comes out in 2008, then it will definitely end up in my top ten of the year. (Conrad is a first-time director; his previous screenplays include Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, The Weather Man, and The Pursuit of Happyness.) This is a fantastic little comedy, filled with all sorts of weird little moments and strange diversions, but at its core, The Promotion is a profanely sweet-natured dual character study that doles out a LOT of laughs while actually celebrating ... small doses of actual humanity! It's a great comedy with an excellent message delivered by a bunch of actors who are clearly savoring the material. (My normal m.o. is to "champion" smaller horror flicks, but a good movie is a good movie, period. If I can turn a dozen people onto The Promotion, then I'm doing my job.) Here's the gist: Doug (Seann William Scott) is a painfully nice guy with a lovely little wife and a dead-end job as assistant manager at a supermarket. But when the company plans to open a bigger and fancier store in a nearby neighborhood, Doug sees his shot at the big-time: A store manager position that comes with a swanky raise and all sorts of extra benefits. Doug's present manager (the amusingly weird Fred Armisen) assures him that he's a "shoo-in" for the new manager spot ... but then Richard (John C. Reilly) arrives (from Quebec!) -- and we're off on one of the strangest games of one-upmanship you've ever seen. The guys battle for the promotion, but not in the broadly stupid (sit-commy) ways you'd expect.

I don't want to give too much away, but it's been a long time since I've seen a comedy that balances broad farce and actual humanity with such wit, warmth, and weirdness. The Promotion is surely as funny as the best of Scott's and Reilly's earlier work, but it also has an offbeat "indie-style" affection for its characters that you generally don't see in today's funny flicks. It's got a great supporting cast (Jenna Fischer, Gil Bellows, Bobby Cannavale, and Rick Gonzalez steal a few scenes of their own), although the flick is definitely the Scott / Reilly show -- and both of the actors really kill here. Plus Jason Bateman shows up for a few minutes, and that's always a plus.

It's not as raunchy as the (awesome) stuff from the Apatow crew, and it's not as endearingly artsy as Wes Anderson's (also awesome) films, but The Promotion is a supremely satisfying little mixture of festival-flick "smallness" and big-budget "funny." I hate to pick out my "favorite bits" -- but there's one long, unbroken shot of Reilly trying to weasel out of some board-room trouble ... it might be one of the funniest things I've ever seen. And Jenna Fischer contributes one of the most hilariously quotable lines of the past ten years. (It has something to do with a banjo.)

I have no idea what the Weinsteins have planned for this adorably odd little comedy, but I just watched it with a jam-packed house at SXSW -- and these folks were laughing like nitrous oxide had just been pumped into the air ducts. So while it may not end up as a box-office sensation, The Promotion is the most unexpectedly excellent comedy I've seen since ... hell, probably Juno.