Jennifer Aniston is stuck, again. We might blame Rachel, the sitcom character that apparently overdetermined all Aniston’s options. Though she enjoyed a momentary departure, in 2002’s The Good Girl, the actor has repeatedly found herself in the same predicament, in which her life imitates her art or vice versa, making her an object of viewers’ affection or aversion, envy or pity. With Management, Aniston is again trying to break free, trading in her signature long locks for something mousier, and cloying big-budget sap for honest Indie goodness. But as hard as she tries to get away, she’s pulled back in—for this is about being stuck.
Mike (Steve Zahn) works the night desk at his parents’ shabby motel in Kingman, AZ. He’s clearly bored to death until Sue (Aniston) checks in, seeming sophisticated and almost glamorous in such drab surroundings. Instantly attracted, Mike dusts off a bottle of cheap Chablis he finds in storage and delivers it to her room, a gift “from management.” Sue dutifully rebuffs him, until he repeats the whole charade the second night of her stay. This time, she plays along, and Mike, in all his Steve Zahny awkwardness, suddenly must think of something to say. The best he comes up with is “You’ve got a great butt,” a line that leads to still more junior-high grade antics as Sue lets him touch her butt as some sort of object lesson on how stupid and pointless his whole shtick is.
This goofy exchange and another decidedly more adult one the next morning leads to some approximation of a relationship. Mike’s options and maturity being severely limited, he sees their quasi-anonymous rendezvous as a true love connection. Sue, however, “doesn’t really do fantasy” and so is less than amused when Mike shows up at her job in Baltimore a day or two later. The fact that she is not more definitively creeped out by his sudden appearance seems a generic reflex, followed by multiple repetitions of their first encounter: they get to know each other a little more, she leaves, he follows.
Mike’s amiability supposedly mitigates his disturbing behavior (Sue, at least, calls it what it is: stalking). But Management can’t seem to help itself, glorifying its immature male lead like so many other movies of this type. Mike’s supposed competition, the former punk, now organic yogurt entrepreneur/dog whisperer Jango (Woody Harrelson), is no more grown up than he is. Though he’s got own predictable hang-ups, he’s the hyper-masculine and brutish option for Sue. Gee, which will she choose?
It’s not clear why Sue is such a catch, either. The best Mike can come up with is, “You’re incredibly sweet, except when you’re not.” Sure. she works hard, plays soccer, and hands out Burger King coupons to the homeless. Her dream is to run a top of the line, full service soup kitchen and homeless shelter. But she’s also cold and unwilling to take risks or improvise. If she inspires Mike to break out of his inertia, this seems less a matter of her fabulousness than the fact that she’s the only woman Mike has met recently.
Management makes a big deal about the notion of being “stuck,” as Mike is repeatedly lectured on the topic. But his ostensible “progress” is unconvincing. All his changes, whether minor or major, are Sue-centric and so, don’t say much about his own metamorphosis. His many gestures to win her over are only variations on that original bottle of wine, just slightly more elaborate.
Even taken on its own terms—a sweet and unsurprising romantic comedy—Management is stuck. As Sue tells Mike when explaining for the umpteenth time why she can’t be with him, “Sweet just doesn’t cut it.” Exactly.