Management should have been one of those quiet, sweet little indie films about two lonely, awkward, normal people coming together and finding solace in each other; and for nearly forty-five minutes it is. Unfortunately, for reasons I still don’t understand, halfway through it jumps off the rails and becomes a screwball rom-com filled with Buddhist monks, punk rockers, and wacky Chinese sidekicks. Worse, it’s as if writer/director Stephen Belber is completely unaware of what his film has become, and he keeps delivering lighthearted, silly rom-com material with the same introspective, indie-film tone used in the first half of the film. It’s not a disaster, but it’s hard not to wish Management had the wherewithal to remain the more interesting, thoughtful little movie it starts out as.
Maybe having an A-list cast simply went to Belber’s head, and he felt obligated to gimmick up his script. Steve Zahn stars as Mike, the night manager at a small town motel off the highway in the desert of Arizona. Mike doesn’t feel like the Hollywood version of a motel night manager, nor does the sleepy Arizona town in which he lives look like someone just wandered out to the LA suburbs and pointed their camera at some sage brush. Belber does a great job, at first, of capturing the feel of a real, lonely small town full of average, small town people. It probably helps that he actually went out to the middle of nowhere, much of the film was shot in the isolated outpost of Madras, Oregon.
Mike is as isolated as the place he lives in. His parents own the motel and he lives his life as if he’s killing time, not because he wants to, but because he can’t think of anything better to do. A new guest checks in, a pretty girl. Sick of spending his evenings behind a counter staring at the wall, Mike grabs a bottle of wine, goes up to her room, and awkwardly introduces himself. The girl, Sue, isn’t interested. Played by Jennifer Aniston, she’s an uptight, no-nonsense businesswoman without the patience for a lovable dufus like Mike. Mike doesn’t give up and slowly, he starts to wear Sue down. Eventually she lets him touch her butt.
Random butt touching seems like the sort of thing which only happens in Matthew McConaughey movies but there’s something strangely real about that moment. It’s as if there’s this passionate, exciting creature buried beneath Sue’s stoic exterior and when she lets it out, she has absolutely no idea what to do with it. Mike falls, almost instantly, in love. Sue struggles to keep her distance, but Mike doesn’t give up. Then Management morphs into something else.
Sue’s life gets complicated, Mike starts re-enacting greatest hits moments from cliché romantic comedies and though the movie maintains its somber tone the characters in it are doing something else entirely. Zahn seems to get the change of pace and does his level to roll with the punches by bringing his character along appropriately. Aniston acts as though she’s unaware of the world around her, she’s involved with crazed rock n’ roll yogurt magnets and stalked by skydiving Romeos but she continues on as if she’s unaware of the life she’s supposed to be leading. It doesn’t exactly work.
Still, the first half of Management is cute and genuine. It’s well worth seeing and even the second half, though somewhat inexplicable is at least, entertaining. Steve Zahn carries the film and it’s a shame he’s yet to find his way into the right kind of vehicle. Even after all these years Zahn is one of Hollywood’s most unsung and underused talents. Management may only be half the movie he deserves, but at least it isn’t Daddy Day Care or Strange Wilderness.