Management Dir. Stephen Belber

[Samuel Goldwyn Films; 2009]

Stephen Belber’s directorial debut Management is rather deliberately about becoming “unstuck” -- from people, from places, from convention, and from routine. While a reasonable enough theme for a movie about finding yourself, Management forces the point home clumsily.

Mike (Steven Zahn) and Sue (Jennifer Aniston) heedlessly shuffle through their droll lives until their chance meeting at his parents’ roadside motel in Kingman, AZ. A 30-something flop-out, Mike flings himself at Sue, an emotionless traveling salesperson pitching commercial art to hotels and businesses. She acquiesces to his sloppy advances, and the cross-country goose chase begins.

Management stubbornly labors to establish the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Mike and Sue. He takes yoga, dines exclusively at Thai restaurants, and rehearses Bad Company songs on his keyboard. She daydreams about starting a soup kitchen, passes out Whopper coupons to homeless people after her weekly indoor soccer game, and frets about recycling. While Belber attempts to cultivate a Juno-like atmosphere of individuality and novelty, Management leaves a lot to be desired, content to stick to the romantic comedy playbook rather than delving deeper into the emotions of the lead characters.

But the problem here isn’t the acting. Management gives Aniston a screen role she can handle, a personality-less woman adrift in corporate culture and her hobbies. And Steve Zahn reprises his usual role as milquetoast fool whose development has been arrested (see Saving Silverman, Joy Ride). Mike nonetheless manages to ignite something in Sue, triggering a midlife crisis. While Aniston and Zahn’s screen chemistry doesn't exactly sparkle, it’s not completely stiff either.

Instead, the problems are in the lack of direction, the innumerable convenient plot developments, the mediocre screenplay. When Sue returns to her former boyfriend, “ex-punk” Jango (Woody Harrelson), a hyperactive yogurt mogul who raises German Shepherds and subscribes to the lifestyle of his faded youth, the plot meanders arbitrarily: Mike enters a Buddhist monastery to sort himself out and she settles for the convenience of Jango’s marriage proposal. Harrelson doesn't inject much energy into the film, though I wouldn't exactly blame him for this failure.

Management is an odd film. Not odd-cute, odd-pensive, or odd-strange, rather just odd for the sake of odd. The film flutters without choosing any particular direction, focusing briefly for the sake of hitting its clichéd plot points. Like other films that Management aspires to be (Sunshine Cleaning, Dan in Real Life), Belber uses the convention of a mother's death (Margo Martindale) to launch Mike's final assault on Sue’s senses. What's intended as a sentimental moment comes off flat and emotionless, something contrived to send the reeling him back to Sue.

Management isn’t atrocious; it just doesn’t have a particular audience in mind and foolishly tries to mix in something for everyone. Perhaps that's why, though completed in 2008, it languished in distribution limbo until early this year. And maybe that's where it should have stayed.

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