Here is a film about people struggling with the reality of life's disappointments. Management is not a romantic comedy so much as an acutely observed study of what happens when two damaged souls collide.
On the surface, it adheres to a certain rom-com formula: Guy meets Girl, Guy falls in love, Guy chases Girl around country. Girl isn't sure about Guy, Girl sleeps with Guy on impulse, Girl spends a lot of time lecturing Guy about why the relationship won't work.
What sets this film apart is an undercurrent of sadness and darkness: the Guy is a borderline sociopath, and the Girl is a shell of a human, emotionally comatose and seemingly incapable of real love. They both lead zombie-like lives that are devoid of love and laughter, and when they meet, they don't quite know what to do with each other.
It sounds dire, but it's actually lighthearted and sometimes very funny; it's the kind of movie that could be pigeon-holed as a "quirky indie romance."
But writer-director Stephen Belber is an accomplished playwright (he wrote the searing chamber drama Tape, which was made into a great movie by Richard Linklater) and is too interested in the details of human nature to make something that is simply "quirky" or "cute".
Consider what Sue (Jennifer Aniston), the Girl, does for a living. She sells corporate decorative "art" (banal paintings of dogs and countrysides) to businesses, places like the Kingman Motor Inn, which is where Mike (Steve Zahn), the Guy, works. She also volunteers to help the homeless. Her volunteer work involves hitting skid row to pass out vouchers for free whoppers at Burger King, but she dreams of opening an epic soup kitchen/shelter.
She's a cog living a life made up of dull, colorless moments, but she has a nagging desire to do something meaningful. She feels "passionate" about recycling, and complains to hotel management when she finds no bin for her empty wine bottle. She focuses on being selfless and responsible to avoid confronting the fact that she is unhappy and living a painfully predictable existence.
Then there's Mike. He lives in the motel that his parents own. His daily routine consists of towel deliveries, yoga class and night-managing (sitting behind a desk and watching television). He's stuck in the uneventfulness of the Arizona desert, lonely and bored and probably depressed. When Sue shows up to his motel, he's so instantly smitten that he delivers a bottle of wine to her room under the guise of a welcome gift, and does it again the following night. "We do this for everyone," he lies. "Two-night special."
Sue is initially put off by Mike, and with good reason. He's socially awkward, with stalker-ish tendencies that make him seem capable of dangerous behavior.
Is Mike what Sue needs?
He thinks so. She doesn't. But she's bored and lonely too, and eventually succumbs to his advances and sleeps with him.
Then she leaves. She has a home and a job in Maryland, and can't stay to entertain the notion of a potentially disastrous relationship. But Mike won't take "no" for an answer, and eventually shows up at her doorstep across the country, begging for consideration.
This all occurs in the first act. Where the film goes is surprisingly difficult to anticipate, considering the familiar set-up. Mike's amorous quest takes him to strange places, like Aberdeen, Washington, where he meets equally strange people, like Al (James Hiroyuki Liao), a waiter at a low-rent Chinese restaurant who also works for his parents. He encourages Mike to continue chasing Sue, who has moved to Aberdeen to re-ignite a relationship with Jango (Woody Harrelson), a punk-rocker-turned-entrepreneur (he owns an organic yogurt company) whose haplessness belies a violent streak.
But I'm revealing too much. Belber revels in making outrageous set-ups and situations somehow believable, and Mike pulls stunts and makes grand gestures that in a lesser film would seem trite and slapstick. There are occasional misfires, like when Mike and Al stand outside of Sue's window and perform "Feel Like Makin' Love." Belber tries hard to inject new life and meaning into these kind of familiar zany scenarios, but he doesn't always pull it off (though a scene of Mike parachuting into Sue's backyard swimming pool amid a hale of BB fire from Jango is deliriously funny).
Belber is most comfortable when making pointed observations, and throughout the film characters utter lines that sometimes approach brilliance, as when Mike's mom observes of Sue that "she's logical, in an emotionally annihilated kind of way."
Zahn and Aniston are two charming actors who have lately found much work playing the same kind of damaged working class characters they portray in Management. Aniston in particular has developed some sort of indie cottage niche portraying tightly-wound women who walk the line between white and blue collar and put either too much stock or not enough in their romantic relationships.
Zahn has a harder time with this kind of character work, and although he does a fine job articulating Mike's idiosyncrasies, he sometimes falters with the meatier emotions. Had Belber cast a more seasoned character actor like Sam Rockwell or even Adam Sandler (who in Punch-Drunk Love was far superior with a similar role), the film's broader moments might have been more successful.
Management is not a great movie, but it's gentle and sincere. It's sharply written, well-observed and contains moments of insight that are uncommon for this type of film. Romantic comedy or not, it's more deserving of your time and money than The Proposal. It opens at the Circle this Friday.
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