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I'll Be There for You, Literally

Management (2009)

Suzanne Hanover/Samuel Goldwyn Films

If, as some people believe, that the best comedy is grounded in truth, then it is no wonder that “Management” falls so flat on its face. The film begins with an unbelievable scenario and then proceeds to get progressively sillier as it goes along. Not that there is anything inherently wrong in silly - Monty Python made a pretty good career out of it - but it needs to work in conjunction with “funny” to be successful, and “funny” is not a word that springs to mind in the case of “Management.”

The film has Jennifer Aniston playing Sue, a traveling saleswoman who deals in the sort of kitsch fox-and-hounds-style paintings that you only ever encounter in hotel rooms. Whilst on a road trip through Arizona, she checks into a roadside motel run by the parents of Mike (Steve Zahn), who helps out behind the reception desk and with the few odd jobs that are not beyond his rather limited intelligence. Sue, in the form of Ms. Aniston, is a very attractive lady; but when Mike sees her, his behavior suggests that no woman has ventured through the motel’s doors since he hit puberty.

Pretty soon, he is knocking on the door of her room, carrying a dusty bottle of warm white wine from his parent’s garage “with the compliments of the management.” Later, he pops round with an equally forlorn looking bottle of champagne. His attempts to sweet talk Sue go nowhere. When he learns that she is from Milwaukee, he pipes up with, “Milwaukee! That’s for lovers!” Sue corrects him, completely devoid of interest, “No, that’s Virginia. Milwaukee is for crabs.”

That may well be the best line in the movie. So now you have heard it, you will not need to see the film, and I have saved you 90 minutes of your life. One day, when that time is required for an emergency situation, you will thank me. Anyway, this is the point where the film stretches credulity to breaking point. After two incidents of harassment from Mike, Sue, rather than calling the police or applying a liberal dose of mace to the pest’s gurning features, makes a deal with him. Namely, if he agrees to leave her alone, she will let him place a hand on her butt. No really, that is her solution, which is wrong on so many levels. Perhaps it is a long-held personal fantasy of Stephen Belber, the film’s writer and director.

One palm on the Aniston ass later and Mike goes away satisfied, for at least five minutes. Naturally encouraged by this little treat, he does his best to please Sue through such methods as introducing a recycling bin to the motel in accordance with her green views. Something certainly does the trick, because shortly before she leaves for home, she generously takes him for a tumble in the laundry room.

Quite why she does this is a mystery, for Mike is a strange, irritating fellow who wanders around like a bemused toddler. A creepy bemused toddler at that. If his mother did not appear in the film, one could comfortably assume that he had her mummified corpse sitting in an armchair downstairs whilst her voice echoed around his mind berating him over his pathetic attempts to attract women. Besides, this is Jennifer Aniston for Lord’s sake. It may well get lonely out on the road; but if Sue was in search of a little action, she would not have too much trouble finding some. She has a laptop and there are websites for that sort of thing. So I am told.

From this point on, Mike switches to full stalker mode, spending his savings on a one way ticket to Milwaukee to track Sue down. A little surprised to see him, she at least humors him by letting him play soccer with her all-women team and help her out with her charity work. This involves handing out fast food vouchers to the homeless, a rather backhanded act of philanthropy ensuring that if the cold nights do not kill the poor devils then heart attacks will probably do the job instead.

Sue rather generously treats Mike as a friend rather than a sex pest and certainly not as a prospective boyfriend. Besides, she has recently split from Jango (Woody Harrelson), an ex-punk who, despite running a yogurt company, behaves more like a thug for hire with a shotgun, a vicious dog and an alarmingly accurate line in head butts. When he reappears on the scene to take Sue back, things become more complicated – not to say dangerous – for Mike, but the poor sap is determined to win Sue’s affections.

Of course anyone who has seen a Hollywood comedy in the last … well, ever will know that it is merely a matter of time before Mike wins the woman of his dreams. The fun should come from watching him overcome the various obstacles put in his way. Sadly, “Management” labors under the erroneous belief that this fun can arise merely from wacky situations and cartoon characterization. So instead of smart one-liners, we get embarrassing scenes such as Mike parachuting into Jango’s swimming pool in an attempt to charm Sue and, presumably, to appeal to the “hey, dude” element in the audience.

There is way too much wish-fulfillment coincidence in the film for its own good. When Mike hitches his way across state in pursuit of the newly-reunited Jango and Sue, he turns up at a Chinese restaurant, disheveled and smelly. At which point a young waiter offers him a job on the spot and joins in the crusade to woo Sue. It is the waiter who just happens to know a guy with a plane and a parachute and so on.

The film has a good roster of performers. Mr. Harrelson has racked up some great performances over his career while Mr. Zahn has done well in films such as “Out of Sight” and “Rescue Dawn.” Even they can not do much with such underwritten parts and a poorly structured screenplay. It is the talents of Ms. Aniston which are the most squandered, however. One so wishes that she would show up in something as dark, acerbic and well written as “The Good Girl” to show that she can be much more than a rom-com queen with a defunct sitcom and a failed celebrity marriage behind her.

I might well be getting old, but Hollywood comedy seems to be a string of disappointments these days. A dumb parade of seen-it-all-before frat-boy crudity with only the occasional ray of (“Little Miss”) sunshine to offer a glimmer of hope. The best one can say about “Management” is that it is sweeter than most. But as the credits roll on a film that has barely resulted in the corners of the mouth twitching – let alone sides aching – one is reminded of Sue’s comment whilst rejecting Mike’s heartfelt advances. “I’m sorry, but cute just doesn’t cut it.”


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