‘Price Check’: Value added

November 12, 2012

It has been years – at least since Zoe Cassavetes’ underseen “Broken English” and perhaps since she burst on to the scene in the early 1990s – since Parker Posey has had a role as meaty and perfect for her as Susan Felders in Michael Walker’s “Price Check.”

Walker’s film lets Posey run wild. Not that she does – but this is a character that lets her play to her strengths. Her vivacious energy, her mercurial moods, her superlative sense of comic timing – all come to the fore in this tasty and dark little comedy about ambition and dreams deferred.

The center of the film is Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius), a midlevel marketing executive at the sleepy Long Island branch office of a mega-grocery corporation. Pete, who once dreamed of making his mark in the music industry by finding the next hot band, has put that idea aside to be a responsible adult. He’s got a wife, a child, a mortgage – and bills that keep him on edge.

But, as he tells his wife, he has no interest in trying to work his way up to vice president. Sure, he’d make more money – but he doesn’t want the headaches and long hours that go with that. He wants to be able to leave work at 5 p.m. and come home for dinner, to make his family his priority. He doesn’t want a career; he just wants a job that he can forget about when he leaves the office.

That all changes when his supervisor leaves for another job and his department gets a new boss: Susan Felders. She’s a go-getter who loves the grocery business and believes she can change the culture – not just of the office but of the whole company. She’s a rising corporate star and wants to use this Long Island branch as her launch pad.

And, in Pete, she spots a talent who can help her get there. She not only promotes him without ceremony – doubling his salary in a single off-handed sentence – she co-opts his laidback existence, challenging him to be the star she knows he can be. Before long, she’s got him believing it, too.

But he’s also working longer days, taking her calls at all hours and being summoned to her office at her whim. Susan even inserts herself into his personal life, inviting herself to dinner at his house, befriending his wife – even tagging along for a Halloween party at his young son’s pre-school.

Is she a dream come true or the boss from hell? A little of both, actually – and your vacillating feelings about her will mirror Pete’s. She’s got passion and drive and inspires that in others – whether by example or intimidation. If she’s got an issue with boundaries, well, she also gets results.

As I noted when I saw this film at Sundance in January, Posey has been stuck playing kooks and oddballs. But Walker offers her an exceptional character in Susan, one who is both sunny and moody; indeed, her moods have more swings than a rich kid’s playground. She’s as comfortable giving a pep talk as throwing herself on her boss’ floor in full tantrum, and has just the right twist to the kind of boss-speak in which praise is wrapped around a threat.

Mabius makes the perfect deadpan foil as Pete, a guy who discovers that he likes that ambitious side of himself. He captures the spectrum of reactions Pete has to Susan: appalled at her self-involvement and presumptuousness, inspired by her belief in him, even seduced by her obviously sexy nature. He and Annie Parisse, as his wife, also evoke the devil’s bargain they make with the improvements to their lifestyle that Susan offers.

“Price Check” gets it right: that sense of dread caused by employment insecurity, the feeling of doom when you realize that you’re only as good as your boss thinks you are. This is a comedy for our times, played by exactly the perfect actress in her best performance in ages.

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