There is a science to the way products are placed on supermarket shelves, and it is one that can stealthily influences our choices.
What it is not is a likely subject matter for a spiky workplace comedy-drama mash-up. And yet it is just specific and detailed enough to work as an underlying theme in writer-director Michael Walker's "Price Check," which debuted at Sundance last year and opens at Facets this week.
Parker Posey stars as the new boss. Working her way up the management track of a national grocery store chain, she is undaunted by the bland suburban office park of the company's statistical bunker. She is both manic and charismatic — qualities Posey has always excelled at portraying in tandem — and her whirlwind efforts to rally the troops ultimately ensnares the career (and personal life) of a professionally stalled 30-something family man played by Eric Mabius (exploring a decidedly less glamorous side of corporate America than he did as the rakish magazine publisher on "Ugly Betty").
Small in scale and uneven in tone, the film's strengths lie in the way it captures the fabric of an office-based career. "The stuff that's talked about in the script is a relatively new field called behavioral economics," Walker said when I called him in New York. "That's what the film is about: The choices that you make in life, there's this unseen guiding hand sometimes influencing your decisions."
In the case of Mabius' character, his life becomes the human version of a supermarket aisle onto which Posey slyly exerts some behavior economic models of her own, slowly but firmly manipulating his choices. As metaphors go, it's not a bad one.
"I tried not to hit you over the head with it," said Walker. "Parker says at the beginning, the stuff you buy isn't an accident, and I think that's the same for life."
I asked Walker how he found his way into the niche area of consumer analytics. "There was a friend of mine who was doing some consulting work for a supermarket company, and that's what started me off on it. It was very boring stuff to listen to, but he was interested and educated and articulate about it, so it was interesting to listen to. And that was what I was looking for — something that was unglamorous and boring but something that people could get caught up in. And the more research I did, the more I got caught up in how it works. I knew from going to dinner parties that if you brought this stuff up, people's eyes would just glaze over, so it was tough to get into the jargon of it and the enthusiasm of it."
A good deal of that jargon is offset by the frequently absurd behavior of Parker's character, who blithely oversteps personal boundaries and, at one point, drops to the ground to have a full-blown temper tantrum when she doesn't get her way.
According to Walker, that scene is based on a Francis Ford Coppola story. "He's told this story before about making 'The Godfather.' He went into the office at Paramount and said, 'I've got this great idea: Marlon Brando,' and they said, 'No way is he ever going to be in our movie.' And apparently he threw himself on the floor in a pseudo-epileptic fit." It worked for Coppola, and needless to say, it works for Posey's character as well.
"Price Check" opens Friday at Facets. Go to facets.org.
The Siskel Film Center gathers a panel of local critics (including the Tribune's Michael Phillips) to dissect and debate possible nominee candidates for 2013 Academy Awards (which will be announced that morning. Noon on Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
The works of one of America's earliest experimental filmmakers will be featured at Cinema Minima this weekend. Maya Deren, who was an influential avant garde artist in the 1940s and '50s, frequently combined elements of dance and voodoo in her films. On Sunday you can catch excerpts from her biographical documentary, selected shorts and scenes from her feature-length documentary "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti." 8 p.m. at Cole's Bar. Go to Cinema-Minima.com.
Friends since their days at Northwestern University, Ethan Sandler and Adrian Wenner (who produced the Chicago-set TBS sitcom "My Boys") are developing a new comedy for AMC called "We Hate Paul Revere," about two brothers living in Colonial-era Boston.
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