Management is noteworthy because it offers Steve Zahn the starring vehicle he’s deserved since breaking into the business. As Mike, the film’s regular Joe protagonist, the actor perfects the particular sort of empathetic vulnerability he’s projected in films as different as Saving Silverman and Rescue Dawn. There may be no one currently working in Hollywood who better conveys a lovable shaggy dog image, inspiring sympathy rather than ridicule with his social blunders and earnest displays of emotion.
Otherwise, Stephen Belber’s feature filmmaking debut descends down the black hole of cuteness at the core of the journey of self-discovery that provides its narrative. It relies too heavily on precious comic convolutions and life platitudes to put forth the singularly unconvincing romance between Mike and Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston). The pair first meets at a small motel in Kingman, Arizona. Mike’s the hotel handyman and the son of its owners (Fred Ward and Margo Martindale). Sue is a traveling saleswoman of corporate art. What follows is an extended pursuit, as Mike hounds Sue across the country on a quest to convince her that she should love him.
The picture co-opts a standard indie dramedy visual template, with ample reaction show close-ups held on Mike, a multitude of landscapes both beauteous and mundane and the sort of earnest, naturally lit compositions that suggest the onset of psychological freedom and clarity for the stuck protagonist. It is, to a great extent, scrubbed clean, a vision of such atypical locales as Kingman, Baltimore and Aberdeen, Washington that makes everything from an office park to a resplendent mountain estate seem impossibly picturesque. The film registers as a consistent visual pleasure thanks to that approach, but it only furthers the overarching cause of its derailment: a steadfast removal from any semblance of reality.
Management looks and feels exactly as Hollywood appears to have determined such coming of age ventures should. It’s filled with just the right combination of heartfelt dramatics and quirky comedy, yo-yoing between the two modes from start to finish. The story hits all the familiar notes as it charts Mike’s unthawing, as our hero begins living his life to what movies have traditionally determined the fullest to be.
The character interacts with some terrifically offbeat characters, ranging from Sue’s nightmare of an on-again, off-again boyfriend (Woody Harrelson) to Al (James Hiroyuki Liao), a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. He finds himself stuck in absurdist comic scenarios, being fired upon by a BB gun after mistakenly parachuting into Woody’s pool. He has not one, not two, but three heartfelt conversations with his parents. He openly, unabashedly pines after Sue, never shying away from sharing his intense feelings for her, even as she steadfastly rejects them.
It’s the same tired stuff, reliant on credibility stretching coincidences and too calculated emotional journeys from point A to B that we’ve seen in everything from Say Anything to Garden State. The movie even rips off the former’s iconic window serenade, replacing Phil Collins with Zahn’s performance of “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” The clichés of tone and content that engulf the picture make it impossible to buy into the whimsical universe Belber creates. The constant awareness of the fact that the characters occupy a reality more closely informed by other movies than the world beyond the multiplex makes it impossible to experience the requisite full immersion.
Yet the star’s presence in every scene nearly mitigates the glaring flaws. There’s some cathartic pleasure to be had in the specter of his characteristic beleaguered beta male actually toughening up and going for the girl. One suspects he couldn’t be anything but likable and sympathetic if he tried. Aniston musters up a deglamorized, selfless image as best she can, and there are occasionally moments wherein the enormous weight of her tabloid celebrity fades away. Still, any amount of truth uncovered in their improbable relationship succumbs to an inescapable reality: these two actors, entrenched as they are in their personas, could only be brought together by the sort of credibility stretching machinations that derail the rest of the world they inhabit.