“Management” deserves some points for its quirky approach to romantic comedy conventions, but it doesn’t offer enough rewards to make the experience worthwhile. A story of a sheltered man-child and the professional woman he falls hopelessly in love with, this feature directing debut of playwright Stephen Belber is odd and touching, but it unfolds as a collection of disparate gambits that could have used a surer hand behind the helm.
Mike (Steve Zahn) has spent most of his adult life working for his parents’ motel in Arizona. It’s a dull, uncomplicated existence, but his world gets turned upside down when a beautiful guest, Sue (Jennifer Aniston), comes to stay while traveling on a business trip. Mike introduces himself under the guise of his job as motel management, but Sue instantly recognizes the crush that this socially awkward man has on her. At first, she tries politely to hide her annoyance, but it’s clear that a put-together businesswoman like herself doesn’t have time for a loser like Mike. Then in a moment of weakness and loneliness, she seduces him before preparing to head back to her job in Maryland.
Smitten, Mike spends his meager life savings to travel to Maryland to find her. She’s stunned to see him, and partly out of guilt she agrees to let him stay with her for a few days, though they don’t sleep together. Telling him that things can’t work out between them, she sends him back home, eventually running back into the arms of an old boyfriend named Jango (Woody Harrelson) who’s made a fortune in the yogurt industry. Devastated when he discovers she’s moved to Aberdeen, Washington to be with him, Mike treks north to stop her from getting back with Jango.
“Management” is similar to other recent indie romantic comedies like “Expired” and “Good Dick,” whose central love story involves two seemingly incompatible characters trying to bridge the impossible gulf between them. Writer-director Stephen Belber makes it clear that Mike and Sue don’t seem like an ideal couple, eliciting laughs from the realization that Sue is out of Mike’s league. But in the early chapters, it’s hard to understand Sue’s softening toward Mike. “Management” argues that the loneliness of business trips and the emptiness of Sue’s life lead to susceptibility to Mike’s simple kindness, but he seems like such a dopey weirdo that her decision to sleep with him, albeit done impulsively, feels unbelievable.
As the story progresses and Mike starts hanging out with Sue in Maryland, the film begins to feel a bit more realistic and their odd-couple pairing starts to make more sense. The chemistry between the two stars helps in winning us over. Aniston ably demonstrates Sue’s vulnerability and regret as a career-oriented woman who dreamed of making a difference in the world before getting trapped in a dead-end job in corporate America. And while Zahn occasionally indulges his penchant for oddball behavior, his Mike is a tender romantic easy to root for.
If Belber had simply focused on the rapport between his leads, he might have concocted a likeable, though familiar, romantic comedy. Instead, he toys with convention, introducing a rival to Sue’s affections who’s a bit of a nutjob himself. (As the romantic rival, Woody Harrelson has fun riffing on his loopy persona, although the character is little more than a cliché.) In addition, Belber makes Mike’s attempts to win Sue back in Aberdeen laughably pathetic, with the character eventually resorting to Buddhism to forget about his love for her. The plot’s unpredictability can be fun, but the film’s willful quirkiness is terribly off-putting, as if Belber upends expectations just for the sake of “originality.”
That attitude is even more disappointing considering the film’s ability to produce genuinely touching moments. Sue and Mike share a few such scenes, but Mike’s interactions with his emotionally stunted father (played by a typically gruff Fred Ward) and his loving mother (a reliably folksy Margo Martindale) can also be affecting. Unfortunately, balanced against the deadpan irony of most of the film’s humor, these rare displays of heartfelt sentiment feel disingenuous. Juggling different tones can be a tricky undertaking, and Belber’s lack of experience shows. His eccentric romantic comedy is ambitious, but lacks enough discipline to pull all the warring impulses together and emerge as a fully satisfying film.
Jennifer Aniston (Sue)
Steve Zahn (Mike)
Margo Martindale (Trish)
Fred Ward (Jerry)
James Liao (Al)
Woody Harrelson (Jango)