Monday, May 18, 2009

Management















By Elise Nakhnikian

Like Mike (Steve Zahn), its socially impaired main character, Management wants us to fall in love with its good intentions and all-too-evident sincerity despite its many – and sometimes downright disturbing – flaws. It also wants to be a madcap comedy. And it wants to be taken seriously as a relationship story, with Mike and Sue (Jennifer Aniston), the buttoned-up businesswoman he falls for, changing and growing to become true soulmates.

Some filmmakers could combine that many different colors into a work of art, but writer/director Stephen Belber just winds up with a lumpy, brownish mass that’s about as appealing as the “corporate art” Sue sells to hotels and office buildings.

This is Belber’s first attempt at comedy, and maybe it should be his last. He seems to do better with straight drama, like his three-character play Tape, which director Richard Linklater turned into a taut little movie (Belber wrote the screenplay), or The Laramie Project, the play turned TV movie about the murder of Matthew Shepard, for which he was part of a team of writers.

Here, he’s aiming to make one of those movies where a guy falls for a girl (or vice versa) who’s just not that into him and then pursues her until she falls for him too. We’ve all seen that movie a thousand times, probably because most of us like to fantasize either about landing The One That Got Away or being pursued with that kind of single-minded devotion. But Management pushes the premise too far, making it more creepy than romantic.

Mike’s not a lover: He’s a stalker with the emotional IQ of a two-year-old. It’s hard to imagine a competent adult falling for him. But this appears to be a male fantasy based on the premise that someone who looks like Jennifer Aniston could really be a mass of self-sabotaging neuroses in need of nothing more than someone who will be "sweet" to her. Under her fa├žade of brisk efficiency, we soon learn, Sue is depressed and utterly lacking in self-confidence.

Even their meet-cute moment – which is echoed in a final clinch that feels as uncomfortable and implausible as everything else in this faintly unsettling movie – is just uncomfortable: One of them grabs the other one’s buttocks and holds on for dear life.

The rest of their early encounters feel just as desperate. Mike, the painfully geeky night manager at his parents’ cheesy motel, falls for Sue when he sees her checking in. He comes to her room at night with a bottle of wine, pretending it’s a standard gift for the guests “from management” – and asking her to share it with him. For some unfathomable reason, his exquisitely awkward come-on works, earning him a quickie in the laundry room. She’s convinced that’s the last they’ll see of each other, but he keeps pursuing her even after she leaves, sending letters, leaving voice mail messages, and showing up unannounced.

In a haiku Sue writes later, she says Mike “keeps showing up like UPS,” but he’s more like a lost puppy. Gazing up at her with bright, expectant eyes, he doesn’t seem to have a thought in his head except that he wants her to love and take care of him.

Their story alternates with a truncated and somewhat maudlin subplot involving the death of Mike’s mother (a very healthy-looking Margo Martindale) and its effect on Mike and his father. The always indelible Fred Ward is reduced to playing Mike’s sadsack dad (no wonder he looks depressed) in a handful of underwritten scenes.

Then there’s Al (a charismatic James Liao, who appears to have a gift for comedy), the friendly Chinese-American guy Mike conveniently runs into when he follows Sue to the town where she just moved in with an ex-boyfriend. Al gets Mike a job and a place to stay and becomes his instant BFF. And a good thing too, since Lord knows Mike needs help.

Sue is appropriately wary of this manchild’s obsessive attention, even getting angry with him sometimes. Yet she keeps giving in – even letting him spend the night in her house when he shows up on her doorstep with no money or ticket home.

Watching the pursued slowly succumb to the pursuer’s charms is supposed to be the appeal of movies like this, but I just kept worrying about Sue’s mental health. I felt pretty sure that Mike wasn’t going to hurt her, but how could she know? How low must her self-esteem be for her to take him seriously as a romantic prospect? And why, oh why, when she sends him home after his first unannounced visit, does she tell him he can’t see her again – for his sake? “I’m not good with people,” she says sadly. Oy vey.

Sue’s reunion with her borderline psychotic ex (Woody Harrelson, who seems to enjoy going all Gary Busey on us) is supposed to confirm how right Mike is for her. Instead, when she winds up in the final clinch with Mike, clasping his butt cheeks in that too-long embrace, all I could think was: Poor girl! I wonder how long this one will last.

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