"Management" is a mellow slow dance of a romantic comedy that skips the "meet-cute" in favor of "awkward encounter" -- a bottle of bad wine and a modest motel room where absolutely nothing sexy or romantic happens, which turns out to be strangely appealing.
Writer-director Stephen Belber has created a world of low expectations that allows stars Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn to slip into comfortable clothes and play ordinary people -- as hard as that might be to imagine with gossip's golden girl -- with ordinary lives, something that suits them both well.
Belber also lets Aniston and Zahn, both just past 40, look their age. And for the most part no one is overdressed -- not the actors (with the possible exception of a punked-out Woody Harrelson, though it's hard to pin any of his excess on the filmmaker) or the sets or the script for that matter -- lending the film a certain mom-and-apple-pie sweetness with just a few sour bites.
What we have here is a heartland romance that begins at a seen-better-days roadside motel in Arizona, no amenities to speak of unless you count the four-lane highway adjacency. Mike (Zahn) is the night manager, a job he got because his parents run the place and, besides, the rent-free room off the office makes it all a little too easy for someone still trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up.
But then Sue (Aniston) checks in for the night and nothing will ever be the same. She's sort of an off-white-collar worker, traveling the country selling artwork to hotels and motels. To Mike, she represents possibility and change, a love interest ready-made for the Obama era. The sight of Sue insisting on a nonsmoking room and looking for the recycling bin is the first thing in a very long time to penetrate his haze of indifferent resignation. He's desperate to meet her so as soon as his parents leave for the night, Mike shows up at her door with a bottle of wine "compliments of management."
She sizes him up. He looks harmless. And since apparently she has never seen any version of "Psycho," she lets him in.
If that hasn't derailed you, what comes next is a moment you just have to get past. When Mike won't take a hint to leave, Sue offers to let him spend 5 seconds with his hand on her backside. A hand on the butt? Really?
After that the story settles in, with Sue going back to her life in Maryland, her job and her quest to make the world a better place -- something we know because she not only recycles, but she feeds the homeless and plays soccer for charity. This is a better place for Aniston, a smaller, more intimate film in which she can almost make you forget she's on the cover of nearly every magazine and tabloid on the newsstand. She never pushes too hard and though life for Sue is more hopeful from the first page, there are quiet strains that echo the fine work Aniston did in "The Good Girl."
When Mike shows up at her office like a lovesick puppy, bundled in a parka and a smile, a duffel bag of clothes at his side, everything changes again. It is the most improbable of pairings but in Zahn's hands, Mike is gentle, sincere and smitten; the kind of old-fashioned nice guy who apologizes for cursing in front of his mother and means it.
There is not exactly chemistry between Zahn and Aniston, but they create a kind of comfort zone that is, in its own way, more reflective of real relationships than Hollywood normally offers.
Nevertheless, Sue sends Mike back home just as former boyfriend Jango (Harrelson), a punk rocker turned yogurt mogul, shows up as a rival, sweeping her off her feet with promises of a charity to run. Then the relationship roller coaster kicks in, though in "Management's" case it's more of a merry-go-round on a weed-choked playground, not too fast, not too fancy.
But whether Mike and Sue get together is only half the game here, it's also whether the world will become a better place. I don't know if it will catch on, but "Management" is the rare romantic comedy to use good works, recycling and life-improving charities as the ultimate aphrodisiac. Though it doesn't always work, it's an idea with its heart in the right place and, paired with nonshock comedy, it's a nice change of pace.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: l hour, 33 minutes
Playing: In general release