Aniston charms in an indie

Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn star in "Management." She plays a saleswoman; he a handyman.
Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn star in "Management." She plays a saleswoman; he a handyman.
Posted: May 15, 2009

When someone as fabulously famous as Jennifer Aniston dives into indiedom - she's starred in The Good Girl and Friends With Money - it's easy to suspect her motives. If one's going to be cynical about these things, such choices offer a way to garner some serious acting cred and counterweigh the Marley and Me's.

But Aniston - with a presence that's quiet, watchful, amused, and sometimes bemused - has been a surprise in these modest efforts. Whether or not it's a calculated career move or just an actress on the lookout for good roles, she has brought intelligence and down-to-earth charm to her portraits of women with low incomes and low self-esteem.

Ditto for her turn in Management, a likably oddball romantic comedy about a traveling saleswoman - Aniston's Sue Claussen - and a motel night manager who won't leave her alone.

That would be crazy-eyed character actor Steve Zahn as Mike Cranshaw, a 38-year-old goof who works for his parents at the Kingman Motor Inn. He fixes stuff that's broken around the motel, and when an attractive woman checks in, he drops by with a complimentary bottle of wine. It's the motel policy, he explains.

Which is exactly what he does when Sue, who sells office-park artwork, appears. For reasons that are not altogether clear, the buttoned-down businesswoman responds to Mike's nervous, clumsy overtures (although he thinks he's a smooth operator). There's a funny first encounter, then a quick consummation in the motel's laundry room.

Then Sue goes back to Maryland, and Mike - well Mike can't get over his luck, or over his newfound love. Next thing you know he's on a plane, and camping out at her office - Management: a stalker rom-com.

Written and directed by Stephen Belber (he wrote Richard Linklater's intense rape drama, Tape), the film has an easygoing screwball quality, as Mike pursues Sue from one coast to the other. She leaves her job in Maryland to move back with her ex, Jango (Woody Harrelson), a onetime punk-rocker turned yogurt mogul who lives in a Pacific Northwest manse with his money, music memorabilia, and vicious dogs.

So, of course, Mike shows up there, too. He won't take no for an answer.

Aniston and Zahn are sweet together - their respective characters have built up psychic armor to keep the outside world at bay, and each breaks down the other's in revealing ways. Harrelson gets in a couple of deadpan comic moments, mixing menace, narcissism, and nutty energy. And James Liao shows up as a sort of second-act sidekick to Zahn, a Chinese restaurant waiter who befriends Mike as he embarks on his plan to steal Sue away from Jango.

That a Zen monastery enters into the equation is but one indication that Management has more on its mind than your average Hollywood love story.

Note: One of Management's executive producers is Bruce Toll, chairman of Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., which owns The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com.


Management *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Stephen Belber. With Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Woody Harrelson, Fred Ward, and James Liao. Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.

Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, comic violence, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz East, AMC Neshaminy, AMC Plymouth Meeting, Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ


Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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