You see a lot of high-concept movies completely sabotaged in execution — decent ideas are a dime a dozen, but well made movies — especially romantic comedies — are hard to come by. Writer/director and playwright Stephen Belber, however, has done the remarkable with his directorial debut Management: He’s made a decent movie out of a terrible premise. Granted, Management isn’t a great film, unless — that is — you measure it against those poorly executed high-concept rom-coms that studios defecate into the Hollywood pipeline based on pitch alone (e.g., Bride Wars, 27 Dresses, What Happens in Vegas). And the reason, I suspect, that you haven’t heard or seen a lot about this movie, despite its high-profile star — Jennifer Aniston — is because no major studio would touch it. It doesn’t have a ready-made marketing hook that might look appealing in trailers. In fact, from the few spots I’ve seen, Samuel Goldwyn Films is trying to market it as a frothy rom-com about a guy (Steve Zahn) who stalks a woman (Jennifer Aniston) after she allows him to touch her butt.
That’s misleading. It’s not a frothy rom-com at all, though it is sort of about a guy who stalks a woman after she allows him to touch his butt. But it’s not traditional Margaret Ray stalking — it’s more of the Lloyd Dobbler variety. The winsome, harmless brand of stalking that’s not entirely discouraged. In fact, Management shares something else in common with Say Anything: It’s not a romantic comedy built around a premise, it’s one that tries — and sometimes even succeeds — to accurately depict how a relationship organically happens. It also plays with the almost logical extreme of what a guy might do to win the girl. It’s made up of the sort of ridiculous romantic gestures that a guy who’s in love might contemplate, but never actually follow through on in real life, like traveling across country on a one-way ticket to find a woman you barely know. Men, or at least those of the hopelessly romantic variety, do these foolish things occasionally. We meet someone briefly, share a genuine moment, and get the idea in our heads that a grand romantic gesture will trump distance and circumstance (I traveled as far as 45 miles once, only to discover that the woman I was smitten with had a goddamn boyfriend, though that didn’t stop her from making out with me, which was adequate consolation).
Steve Zahn, playing a slightly older version of the spastic goofball familiar from earlier in his career (SuBurBia) is Mike, who works at a roadside motel that his parents own in Arizona. Jennifer Aniston — slightly deglossified for an indie, per usual (The Good Girl, Friends with Money) —plays Sue, who works for Corporate Bliss and sells crappy, blandly inoffensive art to crummy hotels around the country. She checks in to Mike’s motel, and he immediately fixates on her, making up excuses to barge into her room where, at one point, she allows him to touch her butt if he agrees to leave her alone. The next day, however, Sue — who is trapped in a rudderless, boring existence — decides to sleep with Mike on a whim, before flying back to her home in Baltimore to tend to her empty life. Overly encouraged and with his head in a romantic cloud of his own making, Mike decides to follow Sue to Baltimore and sweep her off her feet. The catch? Sue isn’t really into overly romantic man-boys who work in motels and foolishly travel across the country to win her heart. She just likes to fuck them apparently, preferring to settle down with men who are assholes, but at least they’re assholes who have their shit together, specifically Woody Harrelson’s ex-punk yogurt magnate, Jango (bad name alert). But of course, that’s not the end of it, as Mike moves to Aberdeen and attempts to win Sue away from Jango.
I liked Management. It was sweet, heartfelt, and charming in the way that, say, the dramedy “Ed,” was on TV, and it was full of the same kind of romantic gestures a man in his late 30s has no business doing anymore, but in the context of Management, that was sort of the point. Sue is too old and practical to be anything but flattered by Mike’s actions, but there’s a part of her that would love to give in to the fantasy. And, if you’ll excuse the cloyingness of this statement, Management focuses on Sue as her mind attempts to wrestle with her heart.
Management is better than it has any right to be — it could’ve easily been a lousy romantic comedy that uses only the broadest of strokes and fills in the rest of the formula with pratfalls and low-brow gags. It’s marred by a few dumb missteps (Harrelson’s Jango, for instance, and the butt-touching hook) and, ultimately, it does hew to the rom-com formula. But there’s enough melancholy mixed in with the sweetness to make Management work as an endearing love story that captures a tiny bit of that dare-to be-great Lloyd Dobbler spirit. And the fact that is has any spirit at all is an almost remarkable feat in a marketplace dominated by Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz, and — well — Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.