Sunday, July 15, 2012

So Sue Me, I Like This Film: 'Management'

We may not admit it but we all have affection for certain films that everyone else has hated. Or just ignored. We may be loathe to acknowledge it, often for good reason, i.e., the film is godawful, but we carry a covert fondness for these films all the same. Here is my first entry in the series "So Sue Me, I Liked This Film" where I will discuss such movies. And try to, the best I can, rationalize why a generally reviled movie resonated with me. In many instances, I may not have necessarily loved such a film, just not hated it as much as the general public.

First in this entry is Management which stars Steve Zahn, Jennifer Aniston, Fred Ward, and Woody Harrelson. The film came (and went) in 2008 while registering nary a blip on anyone's radar. Including my own. Upon release, it was rounded off by most critics as being a particularly uneven and rambling entry in the forgettable line of Jennifer Aniston rom-coms. [It carries a 46% rating on and 50% on].

The film tells the story of a man-child (Zahn) who works in a rundown motel in small-town Arizona that is owned and operated by his parents. One day a city executive in the form of Jennifer Aniston shows up at the motel for a two night stay. And as cluelessly as those miniature dogs that lunge out at canines five times their size, Zahn's character reaches out to Aniston's character for...what? romance? friendship? a quick roll in the sack? Whatever that is, it is obvious he is clearly out of his league. But even then he persists. To extreme lengths and through many changes in his life. That's about the story of this film.

Trying to defend why you liked a film can sometimes be voodoo. You feel what you feel, in spite of all the intellectual and objective rationalizations in the world. But nevertheless, here is my attempt.

To be fair, Management is not all out horrid, quite the contrary it is a mixed bag of things that work beautifully and those that fail just as gloriously. Ironically, I like Management more because it never fully realizes its potential. I admire it for the promise it holds, like one does a nephew who one knows can do so much better. The film has a darkness, a palpable despair about it, but then at other times it goes inexplicably for broad slapstick. It has dialog that gets bone close to the truth, the kind that seldom hits the raw nerve in mainstream films. But then those brutally honest words get diluted by other dialog that is surprisingly off-tone.

I liked what Steve Zahn brings to this film. In his prior work, I have seen Zahn mostly fulfill comic relief duty in bit parts and I was unprepared for him to carry a film. He does. He brings an immediate adorability to this character; a man so purposefully good-hearted as to be immune to the cynicism and deviousness in his world. He is abjectly, and some might say blissfully, unaware of how he is perceived by others. One could justifiably call this character stupid, or child-like. But Zahn makes him, at all times, fully believable.  This is the kind of character that Paul Rudd has been trying to portray in many movies, most recently in Our Idiot Brother. But Zahn nails it here. Perhaps because he shares some of these traits in real life, I don't know. Also yes, I realize this is a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy. And while there may not be universal agreement on many things in the film community, there is unanimous consensus that Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies equal crap. Well, here's your outlier. As in The Good Girl, Aniston brings a lived-in, real-world, somewhat exhausted sensibility to this role, something that has been missing from her other work. There is nothing cutesy, or glistening about her in Management. Aniston's best work may well be ahead of her when she simply stops being Aniston - as she demonstrated most recently in Horrible Bosses.

I liked that the architecture of this film is unpredictable. Truth be told, it is all over the place, a mess even. Oh how recklessly the plot veers, particularly in the second half of the film. Any five studio-executives in a conference room would not have been able to resist the urge to tamper with this film. But this movie is likely the result of a writer-director left to his own means. A person who wants to tell a story in his own voice will take these risks. I say, better to fail than not risk at all. I admire first time director (and writer) Stephen Belber for letting Management take the form that it does; if wildly careening, then so be it. And I look forward to his next film.

I liked how understated Steve Zahn's parents are in this film. Played by Fred Ward and Margo Martindale, they do not have substantial dialog. But the film finds that they have a lot to say. And they ultimately form the emotional backbone of the film.

I liked that this is the earliest film to provide proof that henceforth, any movie will be instantly improved by the presence of Woody Harrelson. Barely a year after No Country For Old Men, but long before The Messenger, long before Zombieland,  long before Rampart, and long before Game Change, there was Management. Harrelson has a small part in the film (in a role cartoonishly tailor-scripted for him) but he walks away with the movie.

But mostly here is what I liked about Management: that for a smalltime generic romantic comedy, the movie reaches for some rather big issues. About finding one's place in life. About deciding how much of your parents you want to be in your own life. About eventually embracing what the world expects of you. And while appreciating the comfort that comes from that, also realizing the price one pays for willfully forgetting one's dreams, as outlandish and untenable as they might be. I liked that we seldom see characters in films that are so obviously, unquestionably, hopelessly in love with someone. Un-condition-ally. Like a dog. Like a stalker. Through no control of their own. This is creepy territory for a film to be in, something that can alienate mainstream audiences. But any movie that is trying to speak to the struggle between everyday practicality and moony romanticism is doing something right. Its hardly a consistent success though. To be sure, Management fails with many of the big issues it wants to comment on - sometimes because it lacks the subtlety to pull it off, and sometimes the skill. But I liked that the film at least asked these questions.

If this film were even a modest hit perhaps I would not like it as much as I do. But as unrecognized and uncelebrated as it is, I have affection for it. Like one does for that nephew, warts and all.

Management is available on Netflix Instant. 

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