Friday, September 18, 2009

On DVD: "Management"

Look, I’m not immune to the pleasures of the occasional high-quirk romantic comedy; just this very week, I recommended an indie rom-com about a video store clerk who basically stalks a customer, resulting in a courtship where they watch 70s porn and she asks him not to talk. So I’ll go along with a premise—to a point. The problem with Management, Stephen Belber’s would-be oddball rom-com, is that it’s simply inexplicable. We’re given no indication as to why the object of our hero’s affection reacts to him the way she does at several vital junctures, and without understanding the relationship, it’s impossible to buy the relationship.

Steve Zahn, immediately likable and sympathetic, plays Mike, who helps run his parents’ roadside motel in Arizona. When Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston), a lovely traveling businesswoman, checks in, Mike is immediately smitten; he makes awkward overtures, taking “complimentary” booze to her room and trying to instigate small talk. For reasons unknown (aside from perhaps a sympathetic streak), Sue ends up encouraging and reciprocating his passes, so when she returns to Maryland, Mike decides to follow her.

“I thought, I’m just gonna go for it,” he explains. “With me?” she asks in disbelief. “It was a far-flung notion,” he admits.

The trouble with this set-up isn’t Zahn; he’s entirely believable, and his character is fairly well-constructed, as these things go. The film loses us with Sue—she keeps doing these inexplicable things, and since we don’t know anything about her (as written, the character could charitably be called “thin”), we don’t get her motivation. This continues well into the picture—impulsive, on-the-road sex is one thing, but allowing the guy who has stalked you across the country to go ahead and hang out for the night and crash on your couch is another. What the hell is she thinking? Writer/director Belber doesn’t seem to know, and unfortunately, neither does Aniston; they should have had a conversation about that, at some point. As the film stands, Aniston doesn’t do much but blink her big eyes, look pretty, and act indecisive; frankly, we’re not quite sure why Mike likes her so much, aside from her “great butt.”

So we don’t believe the relationship—it’s just too much of a stretch to believe that she would continue to let him in. As a result, the picture can’t quite find its narrative footing; it veers haphazardly between slapstick, pathos, and the comedy of awkwardness, unable to find or sustain a consistent, workable tone. It’s like channel-surfing at times; (very minor spoiler alert) between the climactic scenes of serious, heartfelt emotional confession and the touchy-feely ending, we have an absolutely absurd sequence where Mike decides to forget about Sue by becoming a Buddhist monk. That bit is like something out of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie; how can we take the somber scenes that bookend it seriously?

There are, to be sure, some nice moments along the way. Some of the scenes work individually (particularly the last one), and it’s nice to see the underappreciated Zahn in a role of this size (well-worked though it may be). Woody Harrelson’s character is, admittedly, like something out of a sitcom, but he chomps into it with relish and squeezes some laughs out of it. But the central relationship just doesn’t work, and without that, there’s not much movie there.

Aniston and Zahn are fine comic actors on their own, but the woozily incongruent screenplay to Management can’t generate much chemistry between the duo or make them into a plausible screen couple. Its basic beats are numbingly predictable (see, he has to grow up before he’s ready for a real relationship!), a fact which Belber attempts to camouflage under wildly improbable story tangents and artificial quirk. Everyone tries awfully hard, but ultimately, they just can’t bring this one off.

"Management" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 29.

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