The frown of Parker Posey is like a map of comic chaos. The chief weapon amongst her considerable comic skills (the sarcastic smile is a close second), it does more than inform Posey’s characters, all of whom seem to be suffering some sort of cultural malaise. It’s so all-encompassing, as if her mouth breaks off to form an entirely separate face, that it serves as a promise of sorts: things are bad and are going to get worse, and no one’s going to feel it just as harshly as she will. In another era, Posey would have been our greatest silent film star. It’s merely the ersatz casting agents of today’s Hollywood that have limited her to bitter scolds in a host of studio projects and lead parts in indie pictures no one ever sees.
Through no fault of it’s own, here’s another one of those films: “Price Check” finds Posey letting loose as Susan Felders, the head of a supermarket pricing company who can’t seem to find a common ground between her tumultuous love life, her lack of patience regarding incompetent employees, and the overwhelming loneliness that comes from a mid-life crisis arriving at a career crossroads. Each concern, which feels like their own planet, keeps colliding with each other: she can’t help but take personal calls from unhinged exes while working, she is happy to inappropriately fraternize with employees, and, to put it mildly, her drinking can get out of hand.
Thrust into this mess is Pete (Eric Mabius), an unassuming go-getter who has what seems to be enough ambition to rise up the ranks. However, his ambition masks a far more realistic drive. Pete is desperate, with a wife and child at home and a youth filled with wasted ambitions dragging down his ledger. With an aborted attempt to work in the music industry in the rear-view, Pete can only be hired thanks to little white lies dotting his resume. It’s a credit to writer/director Michael Walker that this never feels like a comic convention or a cheap dramatic conceit. Pete is our eyes and ears into this world, but there’s absolutely nothing that unusual about his predicament, and the film treats the day-to-day indignities of ignoring credit card company phone calls and car-shopping conversations as essential, but minor, fragments of the world these characters inhabit.
“Price Check” stays mostly amiable and aimless, content to absorb the everyday cubicle life of such a mundane job. A comic highlight is veteran Josh Pais as a skeevy lifer, the branch’s innuendo-soaked accountant who thinks the height of wit is coming to a Halloween party dressed as Rudolph Valentino. Small moments with the rest of the cast feel a bit too canned and isolated, directed to allow for comic beats more suited to television, but a cast of mostly fresh faces sell the daily horror of living in a world of zero passion and endless man-hours. A plot soon arises, involving a risky new pricing scheme, but it’s mostly an excuse to get Susan and Pete out of the office and joined together.
Though he’s a veteran of several films, Mabius is a perfect generic foil for Posey’s many digressions. Every scene with her is an uneasy roller coaster, with Susan veering from in-control taskmaster to raging, unsatisfied maniac. In one scene she explodes at Pete for a minor error. You can see the intelligence in Posey’s eyes when Susan realizes she doesn’t want to lose him, so when she blames her reaction on PMS, you can see how she suddenly realizes his muted reaction allows her the goodwill for one more extra outburst. For awhile they remain familiar mismatched co-workers, though Posey never allows Mabius to feel comfort. Perhaps Pete still remembers Susan shaming Pais’ Doug by stopping a staff meeting cold to label him with the supposedly innocuous nickname “Assface.” With Posey, who makes the most vulgar aside seem like one long five-dollar word, it’s a moment that introduces Susan as more than equipped to end careers.
“Price Check” never successfully makes the shift into a higher-stakes scenario, and the chief culprit is a detour to Los Angeles. The tension between Susan and Pete suddenly lapses into a far more conventional direction, one accommodating the considerable looks of Mabius and Posey. It allows for, among other things, the entrance of Cheyanne Jackson’s Ernie, a sassy, desperate ex that makes the fatal mistake of complimenting Susan’s mood swings with more volume and emotional disaster. Aside from the near-wordless extended appearance by John Fugelsang, the sort of distraction likely noticed by one very specific generational viewing bloc, it’s the worst interruption to what “Price Check” could be, a potentially acidic look at the backstabbing, sadness and economic reality of 9-to-5 workdays. [B]