Electing to forgo the achingly familiar genre paradigms that are the bane of the modern romantic comedy, Management sees writer/director Stephen Belber bravely attempting to break new ground in the realm of boy-meets-girl and getting caught along the way somewhere between his desire to subvert convention and his instinct to play it safe. The result is a film of two halves that ultimately finds Belber lacking the courage of his convictions and sinking his own brave idea halfway to the shores of success.

It’s a shaky start as motel night manager Mike (Steve Zahn) attempts to woo traveling saleswoman Sue (Jennifer Aniston) by dropping by her room with a complimentary bottle of piss-tasting wine. As the good-natured schlub fumbles through nervous small talk, tripping over his own unintentional innuendo, your interest level will be somewhere on the floor having its own conversation with the sticky pools of soda and the trampled on popcorn buckets.

Then having disarmed you of all expectation, Belber skillfully goes about building it back up, shedding all the sickly sweet whimsy of typical big screen couples that float smugly toward eternal bliss. Instead we’re gently drawn into a hazy fog of decidedly dark impulse, odd sexual tension, and wonderfully strange idiosyncrasy. Rewarding Mike’s uncomfortably persistent advances at the end of her two-night stay with a butt touch (“you can touch my butt, but then you have to go”), Sue goes on her way, but returns just as swiftly for a no-nonsense hedonistic shag in the laundry room, an encounter Mike simply can’t get over.

Pursuing Sue to Maryland, Mike insinuates himself into her weekend, affording him another brief opportunity to chisel away her defenses, before being banished once more. In many ways Management is less a romantic comedy and more a romantic stalker movie. Where such antics run the risk of coming over as threatening, Belber cleverly concocts a delicate air of melancholy to this makeshift dance of courtship. Both Zahn and Aniston are so elegantly muted in their performances that their getting-to-know-you chitchat carries with it a strange beauty.

Mike’s a big kid, but he’s not the Apatow man-child we’ve all come to know and hate. His behavior might be odd, but his unmistakably earnest nature wins him through. Similarly, Aniston is tightly wound in her humanitarian yuppie persona (she volunteers to help the homeless and dreams of opening a shelter), but is never shrill. She’s guarded but never a cold fish. Obviously they’re chalk and cheese, but what matters is that Mike is kind to Sue. Mike is interested in Sue and that makes her respond in kind. Their mutual vulnerability offers up a relationship that’s actually vaguely reminiscent of how two real people might very well fall in love.

Then having laid down such artfully constructed groundwork, Belber torpedoes the entire movie with a second half that lazily vomits on screen every cliche and archetype he was up to that point so careful to avoid.

The out of the blue introduction of a previously unmentioned ex-boyfriend brings about the inevitable separation between Mike and Sue and sends the film spiraling into a nosedive from which it sadly never recovers. As Sue’s ex, a somewhat unbalanced former-punk-turned-yogurt-mogul named Jango, Woody Harrelson’s performance is so big you could float it over the Superbowl. Following Sue to Washington State where Jango has lured her with the promise of her running his charity operations, Mike arrives in town and within two minutes has landed himself an anarchic sidekick/best friend in the form of a Chinese restaurant waiter (Liao) he just met that morning.

Mike is soon serenading Sue by piano and moonlight on a homemade loudspeaker and illustrating his devotion via such romantic gestures as skydiving into her swimming pool. What’s really strange though his how Belber somehow fails to make any of this seem the least bit cinematic and instead treats us to an endless stream of flatly lit, medium interior shots. Scenes ripe for slapstick (Mike gatecrashes Sue’s company soccer game) lack any verve or energy. Similarly Belber misses his own cues with crucial dialogue scenes and incredibly even the big, emotional reconciliation, the denouement of the entire movie simply fizzles out like a damp firework.

In the end it's hard to swallow the bitter pill of disappointment handed to you as you ultimately realize that Management isn’t even as clever as the shallow, vacuous depictions of bubblegum amore that it spent it’s opening act so confidently mocking. At least they seem to know what they are, however vulgar. As it is, you can only ponder what might have been had Belber only managed to summon the guts to simply see his initial idea through to its natural conclusion.

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Woody Harrelson, Fred Ward, Margo Martindale, James Hiroyuki Liao

Director: Stephen Belber

Runtime: 93 Minutes

Distributor: MGM

Rating: R

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