In a very minor way, Management attempts to freshen up the moribund romantic comedy genre, toning down the gleeful bounciness and upping the wry strangeness. Unfortunately, the weirdness employed by Stephen Belber's amorous fairy tale is of a decidedly limp, half-hearted sort, as the writer/director seems torn between wanting to make his film legitimately idiosyncratic, and fearing that going too far out on a limb will interfere with his rather traditional meet-cute tale – and alienate said material's formula-craving target audience. The result is a very mildly peculiar take on a stale opposites-attract premise, which in this case centers on Mike (Steve Zahn), a schlub who works as night manager at his parents' Arizona motel, and Sue (Jennifer Aniston), a chilly traveling saleswoman of corporate artwork who stays two nights at Mike's establishment and quickly catches his eye. Though Mike is a loser, he's an adorably earnest one, and though Sue is a cold fish, she's actually a caring, understanding one, and thus when Mike begins his courtship, it's already been made patently clear by Belber's contrived script that the two are destined to make googly-eyes at each other.
Mike woos Sue with wine and champagne, both consumed out of paper cups, a pick-up strategy that compels Sue – equally annoyed and intrigued by this doofy Don Juan – to allow Mike to momentarily touch her behind just so he'll leave her alone. The morning after that incident, Sue decides to throw reason to the wind and impulsively screw Mike in the laundry room on a table next to the washing machines, and then departs for her Maryland home. Having gotten a small taste of heaven, however, a smitten Mike won't let cross-country distances stand between them, and is soon scrounging up money in order to pay Sue a surprise visit. This startles and unsettles her, but not, of course, enough to keep her from revisiting Mike's motel on her next business trip and further stoking the flames of the maturity-stunted guy's passion. Naturally, an obstacle eventually threatens to permanently derail their budding amour, and it's here that Belber momentarily flirts with instilling his tale with a measure of gravity, as Sue's sensible hesitancy to pin her future on a man-child and his immature infatuation pushes the proceedings moderately close to realism.
It's not, of course, to be. If Sue is naturally wary of diving headfirst into a preposterously mismatched relationship with Mike, her efforts to end their affair steer the film right back into traditional territory. Sue re-shacks up with her ex-boyfriend, ex-punk rocker and current organic yogurt magnate Jango (Woody Harrelson), a lame cartoon character who drastically amplifies the story's quirkiness. Whereas the early going boasts a muted dramatic and comedic tone that's in tune with its drab motel setting, Jango's appearance – and Mike's interactions with him at his Pacific Northwest mansion – leads to clunky, broad farce that's furthered by Mike's sudden, convenient friendship with a local Chinese restaurant employee named Al (James Liao) who provides tame sidekick humor via an ill-fitting regional accent. Mike sky-dives into Jango's pool, gets a beating from the ex-punk upon making moves on Sue, and learns that other, secret factors may also be preventing him from winning the girl of his dreams, developments conveyed with little style (Belber's cinematography is blandly semi-competent) and a minimum of mirth or heart.
As Mike, Zahn flashes so much puppy-dog sincerity while making rash, unreasonable decisions that he comes off as a slightly deranged kid trapped in an adult body. That impression is deliberate, but his childishness is so pronounced that there's never a moment when one believes that the intelligent, professional Sue – regardless of how desperately she needs a devoted, nurturing partner – would fall for him. Consequently, despite a game Aniston embodying her protagonist with discontented aloofness that's designed to conceal inner hurt, Sue rings completely false as a recognizable human being whose plight might engender serious emotional investment. And that, in turn, renders Management hogwash, right up to the part where the impossible becomes possible, love helps make people better, and the musty clichés that Belber seemed interested in tweaking are instead snugly embraced, his tale's conventions delivered with a straightforward sappiness that seems all the more disingenuousness in light of the film's variety of off-kilter trappings.