A romantic comedy that begins with what’s essentially a stalking doesn’t seem like a great bet, but writer-director Stephen Belber pulls it off—though just barely–with “Management,” the tale of a dim but lovable motel worker who becomes so obsessed with a guest that he literally follows her across the country. He can’t give up even when she moves in with the boyfriend by whom she’s gotten pregnant.
What makes the picture work as well as it does is the presence of goofy Steve Zahn, who plays Mike, the son of Arizona motel owners Trish (Margo Martindale) and Jerry (Fred Ward). He their night clerk, and is so smitten with Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston), a “corporate art” salesperson from Baltimore (i.e., seller of assembly-line art for offices and hotel rooms) who registers at the place on a business trip, that he visits her with a complimentary bottle of wine. She’s taken aback but still treats him kindly, which leads him to chuck everything after she leaves and show up at her home office a few days later.
Once again she’s more perplexed than upset, but their encounter remains brief and Mike shortly goes home depressed. But after his mother dies he decides to try again, only to discover that she’s gone off to the Pacific Northwest to be with her ex-boyfriend Jango (Woody Harrelson), an erstwhile punk rocker who’s now a yogurt mogul but still as wacko as ever. Mike traipses after her and becomes a waiter in a Chinese restaurant where he acquires a best buddy—the owners’ Americanized son Al (James Liao), who helps him try to win Trish away. But when she announces she’s pregnant, all hope seems lost.
It isn’t, of course—romantic comedies don’t work that way. And the ending is, to tell the truth, never in serious doubt. But Belber manages to gets to the inevitable conclusion with a degree of quirky charm that will win most viewers over by the end. His direction is little better than workmanlike, but his script gives ample opportunity to the actors to show their strengths. Zahn anchors the picture with a performance that successfully walks a fine line between mere goofiness and crude sentimentality; and he manages, even at the beginning, to minimize any suggestion that Mike might be dangerous—which is, after all, one of the ways the plot might have gone. Aniston struggles more to find the right tone for Sue—it’s difficult to convey why such a successful young woman might respond positively to Mike’s clumsy approaches, and Aniston really can’t. But she gives the character a sense of inner uncertainty and vulnerability that at least keeps her actions from seeming totally incredible.
Harrelson, on the other hand, comes on like gangbusters and never lets up. His turn is sheer vaudeville with an underpinning of real menace, and he pulls it off. Ward and Martindale both underplay gracefully, to considerable effect. And Liao is charmingly scatterbrained as Mike’s helpful pal.
The technical side of “Management” is just okay, but the score by Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen is nicely supportive, both in terms of original music and resurrected pop songs. But in the last analysis the picture works because, unlike the stars of so many bigger Hollywood romantic comedies, Zahn and Aniston prove a likable pair who make you care about their characters. Thanks to the stars’ adept way with Belber’s script, this little movie manages to win you over.