Mister rabbit says, "A moment of realization is worth a thousand prayers." Management is set in Kingman, Arizona but anyone who has been around here a while knows it was really filmed in Madras. As a resident of Central Oregon and a short-term resident of Arizona, I couldn't see the resemblance at all - Madras is just too instantly recognizable as Madras. It's not the first Oregon city to play surrogate, Portland has masqueraded as Baltimore, Maryland and Aberdeen, Washington in the same way. But Madras is little more than a prop - the story could have taken place in any small town in any motel.
Management opens on the character of Mike (Steve Zahn) a motel heir in the most basic sense who is running his parents' small roadside hotel. Into his life walks Sue (Jennifer Aniston), a businesswoman with whom Mike becomes smitten. The movie then morphs into a cross-country/stalker-obsessed love story and all that usually entails: a jealous ex, kooky sidekick, ailing parents. Management attempts to put a capitol "Q" on quirky and succeeds more times than it fails. For a while, the film gropes and falters in the suspended disbelief mode, but is peculiar enough to be enjoyable. Then about midway through, it sinks into way-too-cute mode, combining heartfelt scenes with oddball comic relief. If you dig chick flicks, this is the one for you.
Fortunately, the usual formulaic aspects are overshadowed by the warm performances. Fred Ward (always excellent) provides stoic pain as the dad who let life get in the way. Margo Martindale is good as the ill-stricken mom. Mark Boone Jr. shows up in a hilarious pawn shop segment. James Liao as Al kept my attention by actually proving believable in what could have been a disastrous performance by another actor. Zahn is incredible as the love-struck-super-sensitive dolt and Aniston does a nice job switching her intricate emotions, deftly allowing us to believe her. Woody Harrelson, in a tiny role as Jango, a bigger than life ex-punk rocker cum yogurt magnate, proves once again his command of the screen. A scene in which he guides a tour of his rogue gallery of photographs is hilarious. "Here's one of me and Sid Vicious throwing up," he says.
Even when all things on screen steer us to this-would-never-happen-in-real-life land, the characters are committed and the weird pacing come off as believably awkward real-life moments. Other times, it's just as obtrusive as any romantic comedy. There is some real unnecessary stuff, like when Mike tries to woo Sue by serenading outside a window ("Feel Like Making Love" played on a very large Casio keyboard).
The film's title refers to an in-joke between Sue and Mike, but also serves as the underlying theme of people managing, or in most cases mismanaging, their lives. Management makes us realize how we let life slip away. We become stuck in our lives, whether by our own conflicted emotions or by making the wrong decision, frozen in place by the desperate fear of the unknown that lurks within us all. In these romanticized flicks, the answer always seems to lie in taking a chance, letting the cards fall as they may. This is all standard territory using the overblown adage of love will conquer all. Even the second rate Shins-esque soundtrack sounds a little too familiar.
This touching, life-affirming, get-out-of-your-rut love story follows an uneven path of soul searching including yoga, Buddhism and bad music, leading to an inevitable conclusion that you can see coming a mile away. Everyone wants to be happy embracing life's simple things. And that's what a chick flick is all about isn't it? Oh yeah...there's kissing, too.
Starring Steve Zahn, Jennifer Aniston, Woody Harrelson. Directed by Stephen Belber. Rated R.