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Management

Neatly mixing whimsical quirkiness, straight-faced absurdity and affecting melancholy, "Management" is a slight but likable dramedy that signals a promising directorial debut for playwright-screenwriter Stephen Belber.

With:
With: Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, Fred Ward, James Liao, Woody Harrelson.

Neatly mixing whimsical quirkiness, straight-faced absurdity and affecting melancholy, “Management” is a slight but likable dramedy that signals a promising directorial debut for playwright-screenwriter Stephen Belber (“Tape,” “The Laramie Project”). Pic benefits greatly from appealing perfs by Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn, who deftly apply darker emotional shadings to their characters when necessary, and equally fine work from a small ensemble of solid supporting players. It may be difficult for an indie so unassumingly low-key to gain traction in the ever-more-brutally competitive theatrical marketplace. But appreciative reviews and favorable word of mouth could generate interest among homevid viewers.

Plot pivots on a serendipitous encounter between Sue (Aniston), a stressed-for-success sales rep for a company specializing in “corporate art,” and Mike (Zahn), an aimless guy in his early 30s employed by his taciturn father (Fred Ward) and ailing mother (Margo Martindale) at an Arizona roadside motel where Sue providentially checks in.

Mostly out of boredom — but perhaps partly out of pent-up need for intimacy — Sue impulsively gives in to Mike’s amusingly maladroit come-on. The lead-up to their one-night stand (or, more precisely, one-afternoon quickie) is more than a tad unsettling, given that Mike comes across early on as the most socially awkward motel employee this side of Norman Bates. And the potential for stalker-style melodrama is hardly dissipated when Mike, instantly smitten, decides to follow Sue home to Maryland.

Though her initial response isn’t exactly enthusiastic, Sue agrees to hang out with Mike for a couple days, gradually revealing that, despite her tightly compartmentalized approach to life, she’s a generous soul who dreams of operating a homeless shelter. Trouble is, she also reveals that she’s not entirely over her relationship with Jango (Woody Harrelson), a former punk-rock star who’s now a prosperous yogurt mogul.

Proceeding at an amiably unhurried pace, “Management” compels interest and invites empathy by subtly showing how Sue and Mike — and, to a lesser degree, Mike’s father — are stuck in unfulfilling lives that they are only half-successfully “managing.”

The central relationship at the heart of the pic never entirely transcends contrivance. But Zahn and Aniston are very good at persuasively suggesting a genuine soulmate connection.

Harrelson doesn’t appear until the 53-minute mark, but he craftily swipes scenes with self-satirizing swagger. Without half trying, he gets the pic’s biggest laugh with a throwaway description of Ed McMahon as a fellow party animal.

With even less screen time, Ward makes an equally strong impression with his precise underplaying as Mike’s stoic yet discontented father. Martindale displays down-to-earth grace during her final scene, and newcomer James Liao earns chuckles as an underachieving stoner who helps Mike land a temporary job at his parents’ Chinese restaurant.

The soft- and alt-rock score is pleasantly effective, but pic’s true musical highlight is a rousing rendition of ’70s Bad Company golden-oldie “Feel Like Makin’ Love” as a plaintive romantic serenade. Production values are adequate, with Oregon locales capably serving as settings in three different states.

Management

Production: A Sidney Kimmel Entertainment presentation of a Temple Hill production. Produced by Sidney Kimmel, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen. Executive producers, William Horberg, Bruce Toll, Jim Tauber, Nan Morales, Jennifer Aniston.  Directed, written by Stephen Belber.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Eric Alan Edwards; editor, Kate Sanford; music, Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen; production designer, Judy Becker; art director, Simon Dobbin; set decorator, Vera Mills; costume designer, Christopher Lawrence; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Glenn Micallef; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 8, 2008. Running time: 93 MIN.

With: With: Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, Fred Ward, James Liao, Woody Harrelson.

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