Steve Zahn is an actor that I look forward to seeing in any role. He is as diverse in the selection of his roles as he is in his actual performances. And while he doesn’t always hit the mark, on those rare occasions when I haven’t been “wowed” by his work, it is generally due to a weak script or weak character creation within the storyline. Having said that, then you know there is no way that I would miss out of Zahn’s latest work – and one where he is the leading man carrying the film – MANAGEMENT. Teaming Zahn with Jennifer Aniston, writer/director Stephen Belber, gives us a fun, frothy romantic comedy with a slightly predictable ending but with a journey that is anything but formulaic.
30-something year old Mike is stuck in a no win situation living at home with his parents, Jerry and Trish, in a dusty “boring” Arizona town. Of course, for Mike, that “home” constitutes two converted rooms in a motel which is owned by his semi-retired parents. Serving as part-time night manager, Mike has dreams and aspirations beyond the motel but is so soured on life from constantly being under his father’s thumb that he will never get a chance to even try to move on. Sue is stuck in an equally undesirable job. Living alone near her mother in Maryland, Sue works for a company selling “corporate art” to hotels and motels around the country. Constantly on the road, Sue is alone with no real roots and also yearns for more from life, such as love and marriage, something that she thought she would find with her ex/current boyfriend Jango, a yogurt mogul who left Sue and went off to live in the lap of luxury in Seattle.
But life for Mike and Sue takes an unexpected turn when Sue checks into Mike’s motel. Smitten with her from the moment he lays eyes on her, Mike knows this is the girl for him. He also sees a sadness and loss in Sue that he can relate to. Intent on striking up a relationship with the girl of his dreams, Mike manufactures any and every excuse to talk to her. Hitting on her at every turn, Mike starts his courtship with an old bottle of some kind of 2 buck chuck white wine leftover from a prior New Year’s Eve celebration, assuring Sue that the wine is complimentary from the management for all the guests that stay a second night. Trying to be suave and debonair, Mike is anything but as he invites himself to join her for “a glass” served only in the finest plastic sanitized bathroom cups available. But Sue is acting like Mrs. Freeze and quickly cuts Mike off at the pass. Or does she? Looks like Sue may also have a few feelings for Mike after all as things get a little hot when she takes a tumble for him in the motel laundry room. And trust me when I say, no laundry was involved in what they were doing.
When Sue leaves and returns to Maryland, Mike is beside himself. He knows in his heart of hearts this is the love of his life. Walking out on his parents, with no money, Mike goes into stalker mode and heads to Maryland to find Sue. Shocked and surprised to see him, rather than call the cops or force him to leave, his puppy dog charm convinces her to let him stay for awhile and he lets him play soccer with her all woman team and help with her charity work of passing out food coupons to the homeless. But Sue quickly forces Mike to leave. With a torch burning in his heart for her, undeterred, Mike writes and calls and writes and calls but to no avail. Ultimately learning that Sue has quit her job and moved to Washington, Mike once again drops everything he is doing and heads up north. But Sue isn’t alone in Washington. Jango has returned with promises to marry her. But, the ring isn’t on her finger yet and Mike again refuses to walk away. Intent on capturing the heart of his lady love, Mike finds a job in a Chinese restaurant and together with his newfound friend and coworker, Al, goes into courtship overdrive – at least until the day of the wedding when Mike realizes he has failed in his pursuit. Together with Al, the two are spying on the ceremony, but as it commences, Mike has to walk away. He can’t bear to watch. Distressed, distraught and confused, Mike disappears into a Buddhist monastery where he learns much about life, love, following through and following your dreams wherever they may lead, not to mention a lesson in never-say-never.
I loved Steve Zahn’s performance as Mike. In his most recent appearance in “Sunshine Cleaning”, Zahn was like a fish out of water, with seriousness and a suit. What makes Zahn lovable and believable is his childlike innocence and naivete. I missed that in “Sunshine Cleaning” and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to expect in MANAGEMENT as his character starts to exhibit some growth and change. With Mike, for what I think may be the first time in Zahn’s career, he melds both personas, growing up before our eyes. Granted, that is the character, but to see Zahn pull it off, it’s as if we are seeing him mature as well. Wonderful balance. You feel for him as he struggles over love and over life, trying to find his way with both. The journey he takes is all inclusive and we get to come along for the ride. Writer Stephen Belber’s well-crafted characterization provides for us to see Mike’s progressive transformation – a journey we all have to make.
As for Aniston, she is, was and always will be, Rachel Green from ‘Friends”. Not that that’s a bad thing, and it works well with her performance as Sue, but it’s same old hat. We’ve seen this. We’ve seen her single, pregnant, picking the wrong guy, not picking a guy, screwing up, feeling regret…and pursing her lips so as not to cry and then just a trickle of tears. She has perfected this act. I want something fresh. She brought nothing new to the screen that we haven’t seen before. Amazingly though, her chemistry with Zahn is likeable and believable. Most noticeably – and disturbingly – is Aniston’s physical appearance in the film. 40 year old Aniston looked anything but. Was there a botox budget or overkill on air brushing, soft lighting and make-up? She has never looked so flawless and porcelain on screen, not to mention – young. But the flawlessness is erratic. We see it in the first half of the film and at the end, but in the middle, take a look at the scene with Mike and Sue in the basement. The forehead wrinkles, eyes, deep laugh lines and her skin’s overall pallor – she looks like a totally different person. That drove me crazy the entire film. What Aniston’s look and performance do accomplish though is allow Zahn to be the strongest actor and character in the film with the spotlight shining on him.
Turning to the supporting players, Woody Harrelson IS Jango. Woody, Woody, Woody……… insanely funny as always. Need I say more? I am delighted to see Margo Martindale as Mike’s mom! She has always been one of my favorite character actresses; a great mom, great aunt, teacher, always chipper, cheery and happy and wise. Just look at her in “Hannah Montana” as Grandma Ruby. Here, however, she gets to branch out from her usual performance and toss in a wrinkle as being ill and dying. Doesn’t matter of what. That’s never mentioned and surprisingly, you don’t even realize it thanks to the strong performances in her scenes with Zahn. You are so focused on the mother-son dynamic and her words of wisdom, caring and love that everything else is superfluous. Credit to some great writing and acting in this scene particularly. Always a favorite, Fred Ward is again the stern gruff Dad and is a perfect counter to Margo Martindale.
Written and directed by Stephen Belber, overall, I like the story, like the script, like the characters, message and full circle journey the film takes, although Belber has a few missteps along the way. Quite a few scenes are drug out longer than need be. Most disturbing is that Mike is essentially stalking Sue but she does nothing about it. Clearly she likes him but in today’s day and age, it might be questionable to base a relationship developing on “stalking”, albeit sweet stalking. Disappointing is the ending, which is kind of “blah” after a great structural build up about moving on, letting the past go, be daring, brave and happy. I expected more of an oomph at the end. I sing my praises to Belber though for completing each character’s story. We aren’t left hanging wondering what happened to someone. Every sub-plot and person is accounted for by film’s end. Nicely tied up with no loose ends.
Despite it’s unrealistic and somewhat questionable premise for love, MANAGEMENT is a cutesy, hopeful, romantic tale with a performance by Steve Zahn that takes him to a new level of performance and entertainment – a leading man.
Mike – Steve Zahn
Sue – Jennifer Aniston
Written and Directed by Stephen Belber.