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Dustin Putman

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Management  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Stephen Belber.
Cast: Steve Zahn, Jennifer Aniston, Fred Ward, Margo Martindale, James Liao, Woody Harrelson, Tzi Ma, Mark Boone Junior, Joan Riordan, Katie O'Grady.
2009 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 15, 2009.
An indie romantic comedy insomuch that it is smarter and less patronizing than a major studio release, "Management" mixes genre conventions with an appetizing quirkiness in an overall confection of bliss. Were the film, winningly written and directed by Stephen Belber, better advertised and given a more substantial theatrical release, it would have a fighting chance of crossing over into the mainstream. Jennifer Aniston (2008's "Marley & Me") and Steve Zahn (2009's "Sunshine Cleaning") probably wouldn't be a casting director's first choice when it comes to pairing two actors together in a love story, but their respective roles fit like a glove. They are unexpectedly perfect together.

Mike (Steve Zahn) is a lost and lonely thirtysomething who helps parents Trish (Margo Martindale) and Jerry (Fred Ward) run the Kingman Motor Inn. Unlucky and presumably inexperienced in love, he is suddenly taken aback when Sue (Jennifer Aniston), a corporate design sales rep, rolls into their sleepy Arizona town on business. Staying at the motel for two nights, Sue at first finds Mike's awkward advances a little strange—he brings white wine and, later, champagne to her room, and comments on the attractiveness of her backside—and then strangely exciting. Just before Sue is to fly back home to Maryland, a hasty sexual encounter in the laundry room takes place. She naturally doesn't expect to ever see Mike again after this, and is understandably freaked out when he suddenly shows up at her place of business. As much as she would like to be offended, she can't help but be ingratiated by Mike's na´ve sincerity. What are the chances, though, between two people living on opposite coasts who are at completely different places in their lives?

Funny but not cloying, touching without being sappy, "Management" is an astute slice-of-life, a sympathetic character study, and an offbeat love story all rolled into one satisfying package. With a different tone and in less confident hands, the film could have easily turned into something creepy, insulting and distasteful. Indeed, Mike could very well be described as a stalker, chasing her across the country, parachuting from planes, and spying outside her home as a means of edging closer to her. What stops his actions from becoming deplorable is how well-meaning he is. Besides being harmless and, at times, socially inept, there is never a moment's doubt that Mike has fallen head over heels in love with Sue. Sue sees all of these things in him, and is unsure how to react. She knows Mike's behavior isn't typical adult conduct, but she can't help but be charmed by his unabashed ways. Her other option—punkish ex-boyfriend-turned-yogurt-entrepreneur Jango (Woody Harrelson)—isn't exactly a prized piece, anyway.

Mike's and Sue's initial interplay is surprisingly affecting even under unusual circumstances, and their getting-to-know-you banter after he flies to Maryland to see her sparks with electricity. A scene where Mike wakes up after a night of sleeping on the floor and kisses a snoozing Sue on the forehead is unassuming and adorable in its quiet simplicity. The material turns a little broader in the second act, when Mike tracks Sue down again after she gets back together with Jango and moves to Washington. Woody Harrelson (2008's "Semi-Pro") does what he's supposed to do in the thankless role of Jango, but he is so abrasive that the viewer recognizes right away that Sue shouldn't be with him. It takes her a while to figure this out herself, not because of a strained screenplay but because of the realities of her confused character. She may appear to have it all together, but, like Mike, she has her own sort of growing to do.

Steve Zahn carries the film as Mike, and one would be hard-pressed to come up with a previous character he has played that is as interesting and multidimensional as this one. Emanating a childlike wonder and earnestness without coming off as dumb or slow-witted, Zahn is irresistible as a man who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, but does know that he wants Sue in it. A scene where he scatters the ashes of his mother and stuffs a handful in his pocket is humorous even as Zahn breaks your heart. The ability to amuse and touch at once is a rare gift, and Zahn performs this feat again and again. As object-of-his-affection Sue, Jennifer Aniston is as wonderful as always, the gloss-free complexity of her character reminding of her superb role in 2002's "The Good Girl." Sue may not be sure of what (and who) she wants, but she is greatly appealing without even trying. It's easy to understand what Mike sees in her.

The supporting cast is memorable almost without exception. Fred Ward (2007's "Feast of Love") is spot-on as Mike's dad, a man of few words who loves his son, but doesn't know how to express his feelings. Margo Martindale (2009's "Hannah Montana: The Movie") is warmly no-nonsense as Mike's dying mom, who hopes her son will be okay once she is gone. Newcomer James Liao nicely compliments Zahn as Al, a young man also working for his parents who befriends Mike. And Tzi Ma (2007's "Rush Hour 3") steals his brief scenes as Truc Quoc, a Buddhist monk who gives Mike words of valued wisdom.

Where "Management" ends up is easily predicted, but it is also immensely satisfying. Character-oriented rather than plot-heavy, the film contains two one-of-a-kind protagonists, both good people who deserve happiness. Receiving sparkling dialogue and a full range of emotions to play, Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston are faultless onscreen and relish the opportunities of the material. There are no overt gimmick or far-flung false crises, and credit writer-director Stephen Belber for realizing that the movie is better without these unnecessary hallmarks of cliched romantic cinema. Whether Mike and Sue are destined to be together comes second in importance to how both of them separately, in their own way, evolve as people. Both are very different at the end of the film from who they are at the beginning, and their internal growth, like their unorthodox relationship, is a treat to see unfold.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman