When Parker Posey was crowned "queen of the indies" in the mid-to-late '90s, the title referred to her Sundance-dominating ubiquity. But it could just as well have applied to the Parker Posey type — powerful and wonderfully imperious, with a habit of cutting her underlings down to size.
That's the Posey who turns up in Michael Walker's tense comedy Price Check, where she plays a relentless corporate climber who shakes up a sleepy regional office. She inspires. She terrorizes. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
Posey dominates Price Check, mostly for the better: Whatever observations Walker's film makes about the perils of ambition or women in the workplace register entirely through her. She's simply funnier and more interesting than anyone else, and Walker has written her a complex character whose immediate wants are clearer than her long-term ones.
She's the conqueror of the boardroom, bold and visionary and castigating when she needs to be, but there's a subtle note of uncertainty that seeps through the cracks. Professional triumph for her seems certain, but what will it mean in the end? Just a few more units sold?
The story is told from the considerably blander vantage of Pete Cozy (Ugly Betty veteran Eric Mabius), an utterly defeated middle manager at the Long Island headquarters of a failing supermarket chain. His office resembles the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, minus the quirk of Steve Carell and company — a motley collection of clock-punchers, each just a coffee cup away from falling asleep at their desks. And Pete is no exception: With his wife (Annie Parisse) at home raising their son, he's reasonably content to slouch through his 9-to-5 shift and devote himself to his family.
When Susan Felders (Posey) turns up to replace the long-standing supervisor of the pricing department, she instantly recognizes Pete's potential and offers to double his salary for a sharp increase in responsibility. While the money allows Pete and his wife to pay off their debtors and seriously consider a second child, it comes at the cost of nights and weekends and other predictable consequences. For a passive guy like Pete, being put in an intimate working relationship with a voracious go-getter like Susan is a recipe for disaster.
Pete's moral journey — from stand-up married guy willing to shelve his dreams for family to glad-handing slickster who loses his way — has been taken many times before, and Walker doesn't miss many cliches in getting to his destination. But the character does serve as an effective audience surrogate, a regular guy who gets swept up in the maelstrom of Susan's all-consuming passions.
Posey, again, is the real heart of Price Check, an ambiguous figure who introduces chaos into the Long Island branch, but who animates it too, rallying the troops behind a pricing strategy with all the zeal of Patton at the Battle of the Bulge.
Beyond writing a plum role for Posey, who makes it impossible to fathom anyone else in the part, Walker throws himself into the details of the supermarket pricing game — which may sound like the dullest endeavor in cinema history, but which ultimately has the effect of increasing the tension. The promise of an 8-to-10-percent increase in sales over three months becomes the carrot at the end of the stick, and it helps Walker convey the excitement that can ripple through an office when they're on the chase. It's what happens when they finally get the prize that unsettles the characters in Price Check.
Because after all, it's just a carrot.