Steve Zahn has played a panoply of doofus-y sidekicks in his career. He has a knack for it. And despite the fact that he's playing a romantic lead opposite Jennifer Aniston his latest flick, his character, Mike, appears to be pro forma Zahn character at first blush. But don't be deceived. Remember Rescue Dawn. By the end of Management, Mike has evolved from a man-child to a man capable of taking care of a child. And Zahn has shown the range and nuance that might just make him one of the most talented actors working in film today. Dude.

In Management, Mike lives in an Arizona motel that his parents own and he helps to manage. He's not exactly middle-aged, but he's old enough that the affectations of youth—sloppy clothes, an ever-present basketball, and junk food—are cringe-worthy at times. He has a wide-eyed, optimistic spirit that is tempered by the fact that he is, as his mother says, "stuck." Stuck at the motel, certainly. But also stuck in a more existential sense. And he is lonely.

Enter Sue (Jennifer Aniston). Sue sells "corporate" (read: crappy) art and stays at the family motel on a business trip, sleeping under a bland watercolor like those she peddles. And Mike makes a move, delivering a bottle of wine to her room, insisting it's a standard perk of staying at the Kingman Inn. It's hard to know whether to admire the guy's chutzpah or avert your eyes. I did both.

The first 20 minutes of the movie feels something like a kindler, gentler Todd Solondz creation. Which is to say we are given quirky people in a quirky place having quirky sex—in this case, the first tryst between Mike and Sue, an incredibly awkward groping scene in a hotel room … with all the romance, and small talk, of a brief visit to a teller's window at the bank.

Perhaps one has to be a little cynical to sell corporate art, and Sue is cold and practical. "What would constitute 'making this work'?" she asks Mike when he shows up with a bottle of champagne on her second night at the motel. She obliges him as an expedient means to the end of getting rid of him. And yet, she's lonely too.

Still, it seems implausible that these two could make an actual go at being a couple. Mike's extended adolescence creates an asymmetry in the relationship on both economic and emotional levels. But we've still got more than an hour to go in this story, so when Sue finishes up her business trip and heads back to Maryland, Mike follows.

A lot of ground is covered—quite literally—as Mike follows Sue east, is sent back home to Arizona, goes back to Maryland, tracks Sue northwest to Washington, and winds up back south in Arizona. And a lot of ground is covered metaphorically as we get to know the softer side of Sue; as Mike's mother dies; in a stint in a Buddhist monastery; and as Mike makes an instant best friend who then works to help Mike foil Sue's attempt to rekindle a relationship with a former boyfriend. When Mike parachuted into a pool beside which Sue is lounging, I concluded we'd moved decidedly out of Solondz territory and into a Farrelly Brothers movie.

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This movie is helmed by first-time director Stephen Belber, who also wrote the screenplay. And while its tone and pacing are inconsistent at times (the monastery bit does seem truly random), Management still manages to be moving. Both Sue and Mike change in substantial ways, and their story is oddly compelling, despite the patchwork of motifs used to tell it.

Mike's mother struggled to name the "stuckness" that her son and her husband were in. And I'm not going to do a much better job at it here. But despite its comically quirky veneer, Management is about this existential quagmire that keeps people stuck in neutral. It seems we need purpose—whether that be a person or a cause or something else—to be fully engaged with the world. But it also seems true that a "purpose" can be a way of avoiding a deeply personal life, a life that offers the possibility of the deepest joy, but also leaves one vulnerable to deep pain. As Sue suggests, sometimes people hide behind their cause to avoid living their life.

"You need to take care of yourself so that the people who love you don't feel like they're annoying you," Mike tells Sue in the final stretch of the movie in which people start telling him he has good points. As improbable as it seemed when Mike first knocked on Sue's motel door, these two people have managed to shake each other loose, to get each other out of neutral. And the fool's hope and optimism have become the ground for wisdom. Dude, the Steve Zahn typecast needs to be updated.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How would you describe being "stuck"? Have you even felt stuck? How did you get out of it?

  2. Would you ever pursue someone across the country the way Mike did? Do you think this was a good thing for him to do? Why or why not?

  3. Why do you think Sue opened up to Mike?

  4. What do you think of Mike's suggestion that Sue needs to focus more on her own needs? Do you think it's ever true that someone needs to focus more on his or herself? Doesn't our faith call us to be self-sacrificial?

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  1. Discuss Sue's contention that she was using her cause to hide from her life. What do you think this means? Do you ever do that?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Management is rated R for language; coarse language is employed throughout. There's no explicit nudity, but there is a scene of over-the-clothes groping and sex.

What other Christian critics are saying:
  1. Plugged In
  2. Crosswalk
  3. Catholic News Service
  4. Past the Popcorn

Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language)
Directed By
Stephen Belber
Run Time
1 hour 34 minutes
Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Woody Harrelson, Margo Martindale
Theatre Release
May 21, 2009 by Samuel Goldwyn
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