Writer-director Stephen Belber’s Management is not your average romantic comedy. Well, except that, as not-your-average romantic comedies go, it is sort of average. It is another of those quirky little character studies with more faith in good feeling than in logic, and just enough compassion to suggest that the difference between romance and a restraining order is the willingness not to press charges. It shouldn’t be taken too seriously — being, after all, a movie — but neither should critics who fall all over themselves pretending not to relate to it.
Yes, it may lack the more obvious signposts — the Golden Gate bridge poking up from barren sand dunes, and lumbering men in rubber lizard suits, and Will Ferrell being chased by dinosaurs — but Management’s implausible parallel world is a land of the lost in its own right. It does, for instance, have Steve Zahn as a romantically fixated man-child motel clerk, skydiving into a pool while taking semi-automatic BB gun fire from an ex-punk yogurt mogul played by Woody Harrelson, in order to win back the confused affection of a lonely, chilly, reluctant yuppie played by Jennifer Aniston. And this is after he’s already stalked her across the country. Twice. So there you have it.
Zahn plays Mike, a man so apparently purposeless that even “slacker” seems like too strong a word to describe him, who’s been hanging around his parents’ dumpy suburban Arizona motor inn on the off chance that a reason to live might check in one day while traveling through on business. Cue Aniston’s Sue, a comely sales rep (she deals in the dreary “corporate art” often found lining the walls of dumpy suburban motor inns) who responds to Mike’s cringingly awkward overtures for reasons even she doesn’t seem to understand.
But before this can really get anywhere — well, OK, it does at least get to the laundry room for a clumsy quickie — she’s off, back home to Maryland. Then he is too, without being invited. And just because Mike can simply pick up and leave — it’s not like his parents (Fred Ward and Margo Martindale) really needed him around doing chores forever anyway — doesn’t mean he should.
You knew this. You also knew there is some kind of chemistry at play here, even if it’s only the gently turbulent interaction between Mike’s social ineptitude and Sue’s mixed signals. Belber makes clear that maybe they do belong together, on account of being equally emotionally stunted but in different ways. He has good instincts for counter-intuitive characterization. It isn’t her corporate life that tamps Sue’s soul; it’s her inner life: She plays soccer, cares a lot about recycling, gives out fast-food vouchers to homeless people, but isn’t ever sure why. As for Mike, well, he must have an inner life too if somewhere along the line he acquired enough musical skill to limp through a warbled serenade of “Feel Like Making Love.”
In other words, Management gets a good thing going, or at least an odd thing, and then gets mired in movie-familiar quirkiness for its own sake. There is also a lot of pleasant music on the soundtrack, as if to say: Remember, this is supposed to be charming, not creepy.
The actors already have that mandate down, of course. Not once does Management ask any of its performers — particularly Aniston and Zahn–to depart from their comfort zones, but at least they seem genuinely grateful for that courtesy, and accordingly invite us to come on in and make ourselves at home there, too. Harrelson also clearly enjoys his brief placeholder part, and James Liao, as Mike’s stoner Chinese restaurant co-worker and instant best-friend in Seattle (yeah, he follows Sue there, too), proves the ideal wingman — literally, by providing him with the plane from which to make that dramatic dive. Sure, the parachute bit is ridiculous, but less so is the moment later on when Sue, apparently having settled with the ex-punk yogurt mogul after all, sits reading by the pool and finds herself watching the skies.
In the end, Management can’t be accused of excessive realism, but it does give your good will the benefit of the doubt. Belber and company have sense enough to find their own contrivance suspicious, but heart enough, thankfully, to want to indulge it anyway.