Friday, May 29, 2009

The Management Should Always Be This Helpful

Management is a romantic comedy that chronicles a chance meeting between Mike Cranshaw (Steve Zahn) and Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston). When Sue checks into the roadside motel owned by Mike's parents in Arizona, what starts with a bottle of wine "compliments of Management" soon evolves into a multi-layered, cross-country journey of two people looking for a sense of purpose. Mike, an aimless dreamer, bets it all on a trip to Sue's workplace in Maryland – only to find that she has no place for him in her carefully ordered life. Buttoned down and obsessed with making a difference in the world, Sue goes back to her yogurt mogul ex-boyfriend Jango (Woody Harrelson), who promises her a chance to head his charity operations. But, having found something worth fighting for, Mike pits his hopes against Sue's practicality, and the two embark on a twisted, bumpy, freeing journey to discover that their place in the world just might be together.

In Management, Zahn plays Mike, the night manager at his parents’ run-down roadside motel in Kingman, Arizona. Bored and uninspired, Mike passes the days watching TV and tending to chores around the motel, whether fixing an overflowing toilet in room 210, or sprucing up the breakfast bar in the lobby. He’s a grown man, rudderless in life’s ambitions until he meets Sue (Aniston) a traveling saleswoman who peddles cheap motel artwork and whose recent stop necessitates a stay at Mike’s motel. Emboldened by his behind-the-desk authority, Mike makes his move on Sue who is only mildly accepting out of courtesy. Here’s where things could have turned a bit creepy, and where a horror film would certainly take its sinister turn. After Sue leaves to head back home, Mike buys a one-way ticket to Baltimore and shows up unannounced at her office. Initially a bit disturbed by the visit, Sue eventually falls to Mike’s puppy dog charm and allows him to spend the weekend in her apartment. Sue must recognize the same disarming allure in Mike that we sense in Zahn. Handled by an actor any more menacing or less able to make us see the genuine concern and wide-eyed affection his character feels for someone he truly believes is his soul mate, the film would surely cross over into the realm of absurdity. But Zahn is so convincing we buy into his enchantment… hook, line, and sinker. Maybe it’s his boyish facial expressions or our own memories of childhood pursuits of those we couldn’t have, but regardless, we struggle right alongside Mike as his good-hearted charm and romantic wit begin to eventually whittle away at Sue’s tough external facade. 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 (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 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.

Aniston seems slightly miscast in her role. Not so much in how she handles her character (she’s actually quite good), but rather because Sue would be better served by an actress less strikingly attractive or perhaps a decade or so older. We might find it easier to buy into Sue’s attraction to Mike if she were played by a Catherine Keener or an Emily Blunt. Both certainly beautiful actresses, but they’re more capable of pulling off common or approachable. We have a little trouble buying into the fact that Sue would find anything attractive or appealing in Mike, but the bubbly chemistry between Aniston and Zahn makes everything work. We develop genuine care and concern for the characters -- a vital element for a romantic comedy to work. 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. Management is an addictively charming little movie about loosening up and chasing your dreams. There are a lot of reasons why the film shouldn’t work, and it could have easily tipped over into slapstick silly or even stalker creepy. In fact, some of the film’s offbeat moments feel quirky for quirky’s sake and it works. This one sure worked for me. This gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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