Oh, The Vanity Kim Linekin reviews "Management"

in 33rd Toronto International Film Festival

by Kim Linekin

Management is an indie romantic comedy in the now-shameless tradition pairing uptight career women with doting yet hopelessly underachieving men. It stars Jennifer Aniston as Sue, a traveling saleswoman who hooks up on a lark with Mike (Steve Zahn), the night manager of a tiny Arizona motel. Since Mike works for his parents and seems to have no life or ambitions outside of the motel, he latches onto Sue like she’s a hot air balloon and follows her, stalker-like, to her hometown of Baltimore and then to the Aberdeen, Washington home she ends up sharing with an old boyfriend (Woody Harrelson). Gradually, Sue learns to lighten up and love Mike, apparently because he promises the kind of unconditional, unchallenging love that a puppy might give. Also, Mike lucks into enough money to help fulfill a dream of hers, so that gives him a slight edge over a puppy. But both are liable to eat her food, sleep too much and soil her carpet … so, really, it’s a draw.

Stephen Belber makes his directorial debut with Management after writing Tape (2001) and various TV episodes and plays. After the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Belber explained to the audience that he fleshed out the utterly conventional story in Management from his one-act play, and chose Aniston and Zahn because they have theatre backgrounds, too. (Apparently, Aniston went to a high school for the performing arts; I was in a few high school plays, so that must mean I’m a theatrically trained actress as well.) The artistic pretension didn’t end there. Aniston told the audience that the script for Management was perfection; Zahn said it was hands down the best script he’d ever read. Zahn may not have access to the best scripts in the world anymore, but come on, he was in Out of Sight. Was he not allowed to read that script in full or something?

Management’s faults begin with the screenplay, but are considerably exacerbated by the casting. Let’s focus on the character of Sue. She’s introduced as a pinched woman who wears bland suits and travels alone shilling paintings to hotels on behalf of her Baltimore company. When Mike goes to her hotel room door with a bottle of wine, “compliments of management,” she sees through his romantic ruse yet is bored enough to indulge him. The next night he brings champagne. She calls him on his ruse and asks what he’d consider a successful outcome to it. He compliments her butt — she lets him touch it for a minute — then she makes him leave. He thinks they’re now an item. She clearly has zero respect for him, yet is lonely and curious enough to seduce him in the laundry room. In Belber’s world, true love is born of pity and power games.

When Mike buys a one-way ticket to Baltimore and shows up at her office, Sue is understandably aghast to see him. Yet, going against every possible rule of personal safety, Sue invites this stalker-stranger to stay in her home and lets him tag along in her life for a couple days. A better director might have explored the undercurrents of risk and desperation in this situation, but Belber goes the safe route and uses this time to show us the softer side of Sue. We learn that Sue is not a tightly wound career woman, but a selfless person who spends her free time giving out Burger King coupons to the homeless and dreams of opening a soup kitchen/halfway house. Never mind that “uptight traveling saleswoman” and “selfless friend of the homeless” are radically different character types — people who dream of helping the homeless are usually in some kind of social services job by the time they’re Sue’s age, no? What’s galling about this revelation is that it’s as though Belber doesn’t trust us to like an uptight woman with a boring job. Her hidden “flaw” must be that she’s really nice, so focused on helping others that she doesn’t take care of herself and needs a man-child around who’ll appreciate her niceness and be really nice back. Gah!

At the film’s post-premiere discussion, Belber told the audience that Aniston helped him develop Sue because he’s not good at creating well-rounded female characters. One can only imagine Sue was more angled and interesting before Aniston got her perfectly manicured hands on her.

Speaking of which, Aniston’s vanity offsets any indie cred she might hope to achieve by appearing in this film, which has yet to secure major U.S. distribution. The suits she wears in the film are bland yet always tight fitting, accentuating every curve of her toned figure. A woman like Sue, who allegedly cares more about the homeless than she does about herself, would probably hide herself in baggy clothes, or wear cheap suits that bunch up here or there. Aniston’s need to look like a movie star instead of the character also extends to Sue’s unrealistically flawless skin, makeup and plucked brows. (See also: The Good Girl.) Her only concession to Sue’s un-Hollywood lifestyle is to make Sue’s hair slightly shorter and darker than her own. My suspicion that Aniston wore a wig in the film — because God forbid she go “method” and actually dye and trim her hair for a part — was confirmed at the premiere. When someone asked what was the most challenging thing about making the film, Aniston whispered to Belber, got his permission and then replied, “the wig.”

The relationship between Sue and Mike rings false; the character of Sue rings false. Aniston’s shallow, self-conscious performance? It’s the only thing in the film that rings loud and true.