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Just a few years ago, Dane Cook was, essentially, a Boston-based stand-up comedian. But when his Retaliation CD became one of the best-selling comedy albums of all-time, an HBO special, two "Saturday Night Live" appearances and movie cameos followed. Today, Cook is a budding Hollywood star with one of the brightest futures, and busiest schedules, in the business.
His first lead role, as affable slacker Zack Bradley in Employee of the Month, won't win him any acting statues, but his zany charm goes a long way in elevating the material from generic to above-average romantic comedy.
Working as an ambitionless 30-year-old boxboy at Super Club, Zack gets by doing the bare minimum when he isn't hitting on attractive customers, he's goofing off with his sophomoric co-workers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Vince Downey (Dax Shepard) is a 17-time employee of the month. Not only does Vince run the fastest checkout counter in the Southwest, but his register's line is always long he and his sidekick, bagboy Jorge (Napoleon Dynamite's Efren Ramirez), have a reputation for bagging with flair.
But the employees' world gets turned upside down with the arrival of Amy (Jessica Simpson), a new cashier with a reputation for falling for the employee of the month. And thus begins an epic battle of brown-nosing and do-goodery things that don't come naturally to Zack. As Zack starts earning gold stars from his boss and makes a push for the employees' lounge, he learns to remember where he came from.
Like his character, Cook isn't one to entirely abandon his roots romantic comedy or not, he slips in at least one reference to his trademark brand of frat-boy humor for his real fans. Simpson's a pleasure to look at, but it's a shame that her character is only on-screen for about 15 minutes. As an actress, she doesn't have much range and it doesn't help that she plays the straight character, while all the funny dialogue is given to her co-stars. But at least she's trying to do something different. Amy is played refreshingly down-to-earth, the polar opposite from the attention-grabbing Daisy Duke she played in last summer's The Dukes of Hazzard.
Shepard also registers as cocky, smug Vince, but it's Cook who wrangles the most laughs, and the audience's heart, as Zack. Although their monthlong contest of macho one-upmanship boils down to an anti-climactic Supermarket Sweep-style check-off, there are no real surprises as to who winds up with the girl in the final reel.
Directed by newcomer Greg Coolidge, Employee of the Month works largely because of the efforts of its cast, including its supporting players: Andy Dick, Brian George, Tim Bagley, Danny Woodburn and the hilarious Harland Williams. Coolidge is a promising comedy writer with several projects in development. The slapstick tone that he and co-writers Dan Calame and Chris Conroy infuse the film with keeps things light, and its heart in the right place.
As the fall movie season gets underway and studios start to unveil their serious prestige pictures, Employee of the Month seems destined to be an under-the-radar crowd-pleaser. It's a surprisingly funny, if largely forgettable, comedy strengthened by its two leads. Both are superstars in other realms of the entertainment world, but Cook has both the crossover appeal and the talent.