May 21, 2009

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Management (R)
Steve Zahn charmingly stalks Jennifer Aniston in Management, a cool breeze of an indie dramady during this already overheated summer season.

Sue (Aniston) sells corporate art. She is the kind of person about whom people might say she has it all together. No spouse or children but she has a good job that she seems to do well at, she has a nice town home, and after her weekly soccer game she passes out vouchers for food to the homeless. She might also, a little bit, be screaming inside but she keeps emotions fairly well in check.

Mike (Zahn) works at his parents’ motel. He does not have it together. He is, as his mother says, stuck, and has been for a while. When Sue checks in to the motel on a business trip, Mike takes a liking to her and fumblingly hits on her with a bottle of bad wine and, on the second night, a bottle of bad champagne. For whatever reason — a hidden sense of naughtiness, perhaps, or some kind of appreciation of Mike’s persistence and mild patheticness — Sue eventually lets Mike touch her butt on the second night. And then, the morning she plans to leave, Sue decides, just as spur-of-the-moment, to have sex with Mike in the washroom.

For Sue, it’s clearly some kind of breaking-free-on-the-road moment. For Mike, it must be True Love. He decides to follow her back to her home in Maryland, to pursue the girl he decides is clearly meant for him. Sue is a bit horrified when he shows up and thus begins their romance? Friendship? Creepy acquaintance?

Of course, while Mike’s persistence is a little creepy it’s not as creepy as it would be in real life, where, when he showed up sans return ticket, the authorities would likely be called. But a lot of the behavior in romantic comedies would never fly in real life (all the rushing up to the person’s plane to propose, the chases, the breaking up a wedding), so why suddenly quibble with the stalking in this movie. And later in the movie, Mike’s friend (one he makes after having trailed Sue to another town) tells him not to get carried away. Getting carried away — likely because he lacks the kind of desires and general life plan that keeps you from, say, becoming a Buddhist monk at the drop of a hat — is, more than stalking, what Mike is really doing with Sue. She is, he thinks, The Answer to all his questions. Later, being a monk is The Answer. The real answer, of course, is growing up and finding direction and making decisions rather than creating fantasies. It’s kind of a subtle message for a romantic comedy and it helps to keep the wacky from becoming overwhelming.

And then, of course, there are Zahn and Aniston, who are just fun to watch. Aniston lets herself be a real woman in her 30s — she doesn’t force girlishness so we’ll think she’s younger. She is grown up and can play grown-up women who can be confused and angry and happy but still clearly women and not girls.

With Zahn, the fun of watching him is almost the opposite — he’s vulnerable. He lets himself be hurt and sad without being adolescent. He also manages to pull this off while suggesting that there is nonetheless a real man beneath all the boyishness.

I’m almost not sure that Management is a romantic comedy other than the fact that it contains a love story, however odd, and it is funny. It could also be a very-belated-coming-of-age story. It has nooks and crannies of subplots and scenes (about Mike’s cheery but sick mother, his Vietnam vet father, a friend’s immigrant parents) that make it feel like more than it is. I’ll freely admit that it is clearly a little too in love with its own cleverness, but I also left it feeling light and sort of happy, and that almost never happens with a traditional romantic comedy so I’m willing to overlook a certain amount of cutesiness. B

Rated R for language. Written and directed by Stephen Belber, Management is an hour and 33 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Samuel Goldwyn Films. It is currently playing at Red River Theatres in Concord and at the AMC in Methuen, Mass.