Management (2008) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for language and sexuality
Running time: 94 min.
Cast: Steve Zahn, Jennifer Aniston, Woody Harrelson, Fred Ward, Margo Martindale, James Liao
Cameo: Josh Lucas, Tzi Ma
Director: Stephen Belber
Screenplay: Stephen Belber
Steve Zahn (Bandidas, Chicken Little) stars as Mike, night manager at the small Arizona motel owned by his parents. His lonely, humdrum life gets a bit of a wake-up call when an attractive overnight guest named Sue (Aniston, The Break-Up), who is there on a business trip from Maryland, checks in. Mike soon develops an infatuation that has him bothering her constantly for attention, eventually wearing her down until she succumbs to a temporary fling before her departure back across the country. Mike is still smitten -- so much so that he begins to engage in attempts to see Sue unannounced, even purchasing a plane ticket to see her. Sue is unnerved by Mike's stalker-ish ways, but, as is his custom, he wears down her resistance and the two become friends, though he clearly would like much more. But just when Mike is getting into his groove, an ex-boyfriend (Harrelson, Semi-Pro) enters the picture, threatening to undo all of the advancement he feels he's made. But Mike's not going down without trying everything possible.
Playwright-turned-screenwriter Stephen Belber (Tape, The Laramie Project) directs his own work for the first time with mixed results. A nice cast for a relatively low budget affair, and the actors hit the right notes in some amusing characterizations. Where Belber errs is in not settling into a groove, neither with his story nor with his characters. This is a case where Belber might have chosen earlier on in the film's development whether he was going to go for a heartfelt relationship dramedy, a quirky character study of infatuation, or a ribald, over-the-top laugh-fest. By engaging in all three, the styles cancel each other out, as we don't take these sitcom characters to be deep enough to care for when more serious developments occur in their lives, and the more outlandish occurrences seem a bit hard to believe when told as the simple story of a man who will go to great lengths to capture the object of his desire.
It's a bit of a shame, as the film does manage to pick up steam after going through some slower paces once the forced relationship between the two main characters begins to gel. Starting with some of the unique insights into motel management and commercial painting sales, Belber is obviously someone with insight and the knack for imaginative characters interactions, probably borne from his experience as a playwright. However, as engaging as his characters are individually, they don't mix with each other well, often feeling like they each been extracted from entirely different comedies and placed together in one room. Sometimes it's funny, but more often than not, things appear quirky solely to keep the film's comedy status.
Akin to many indie comedies, Management has a goofiness that is sometimes infectious, and it is enjoyable up to the point when, later in the story, Sue gets serious about who she is and what she wants in life. This turn of events leads to Mike, who throughout the movie gives no other reason for a woman to fall in love with than a cute puppy would, having to do some soul-searching of his own, and also causes this once light and whimsical film to begin to crack from the weight of a story it hadn't built up to support. It is once you begin to take these characters seriously that you begin to wonder why they are so weird, and why no one else seems to notice their wildly erratic behavior. Sue wants to start a family with punk rocker-turned-yogurt-magnate Jango, when he is, by far, the most unstable of all of the characters has you wonder just how together the one character that should know better truly is.
Had Management stuck to its lackadaisical tone from the early scenes, we'd have a better, more focused film. By trying hard to get laughs, Belber loses us in the process, and the laughs are forced rather than earned. Fans of the leads, particularly Aniston, might think it worthy of a rental, but most others will find disappointment, given the high degree of potentially hilarious gags that occur on the screen, that the occasional smile is all they can manage.
©2009 Vince Leo