© 2009 Ray Wong
Jennifer Aniston seems to have set out to do something her ex-husband and his current beau do not: trying to conquer the indie world. Her latest entry is an off-the-wall romantic comedy.
Mike (Steve Zahn) is the night manager of a motel in Arizona owned by his parents Trish (Margo Martindale) and Jerry (Fred Ward). Apart from that, Mike is an aimless dreamer without much of a purpose in life. That is until traveling businesswoman Sue (Jennifer Aniston) comes into town and stays at the motel for two nights. Mike is immediately smitten by Sue. He offers her a "complimentary" bottle of win in order to get closer to her. Thus begins a weird encounter that ends up with a one night stand.
Sue thinks it's all over until Mike shows up at her work place in Baltimore. She is at once repelled and intrigued by his eccentricity. Mike is so unlike her, and his spontaneity excites something in Sue's orderly life. The brief long-distant courtship soon ends when Sue believes it won't work. She also decides to go back to her ex-boyfriend Jango (Woody Harrelson), who is an ex-punk turned yogurt mogul and promises her an opportunity to head her own charity operation. Unwilling to let Sue go, Mike tracks her down in Washington state and vows to win her back.
Jennifer Aniston (She's Just Not That Into You) is a better actress than most people give her credit for. Between blockbusters such as Marley & Me and indies such as Friends With Money, she's paved a unique path for herself. As the uptight, shielded Sue, she projects a vulnerability beneath a veneer of coldness. Her eyes are very expressive even when she's not saying anything, as is her body language. Steve Zahn (Night Train), on the other hand, has long carved out a niche for himself by playing oddball characters. Mike is not very far from that mold: in a way, one wonders if the childlike Mike has Asperger Syndrome or some form of ADHD even though none is mentioned. His character, while bordering on creepy and obsessive, is difficult to portray well, but Zahn succeeds in making us care for Mike. He's an unlikely romantic hero, but it works for him.
Margo Martindale (Feast of Love) is excellent as Mike's doting mother -- I wish she had more screen time. Fred Ward (Feast of Love) plays to type as Mike's stoic father who is a 'Nam veteran. James Hiroyuki Liao (Prison Break) is goofy and affecting as a Chinese waiter, Al, who becomes Mike's friend. And Woody Harrelson (Semi-Pro) has a funny bit part as Sue's ex.
Written and directed by Stephen Belber (The Things We Know), the story begins on an offbeat note. What is between Mike and Sue can't actually be described as "meet cute." In fact, what Mike does is rather creepy, and I'm surprised Sue goes along with it. That said, it must mean that, despite Sue's trepidation, she must be at least attracted to him. In some way, it's entirely plausible because Mike has a childlike, dreamer quality that Sue probably adores, and he's not half-bad looking. That said, the first half is the strongest as far as the script is concerned. The situations are whimsical and somewhat unconventional. The dialogue is quirky but believable.
The second half, on the other, becomes more far-fetched and, at some point, rather ridiculous. Especially by the time Mike arrives in Washington, the story stretches credibility since the courtship between Mike and Sue is already strange enough. The ending also comes as rather forced and predictable, without a lot of true motivation or organic resolution. It feels contrived.
Belber's direction has a soft and almost lethargic style. That fits the first half of the film extremely well. But his pace and style seem to have shifted by the second half, and the story takes on a different turn and feel. It's inconsistent, and it breaks the spell. What works for the film is the interesting, mismatched relationship between Mike and Sue, and how they find a connection despite all odds. When the story deviates from it, especially when Mike goes off to find himself (palling with Al or being a Buddhist monk for four months), the story falters.
Flawed as it is, Management is a sweet little dumpling of a film that touches on the serendipity of love however unlikely it can be. If only the story had been more focused and Mike's eccentricity dialed down somewhat, the film could have become an indie darling. Blame it on the management.
Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, Fred Ward, James Hiroyuki Liao, Woody Harrelson
Director: Stephen Belber
Writer: Stephen Belber
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.7 out of 10