A Smarter Romantic Comedy In 'Man Up'
The producers of every romantic comedy wish they could unite two actors as cool as Lake Bell and Simon Pegg. Of course, landing leads of that caliber only ups the pressure for the film to do them justice. Man Up, the movie that made this connection happen, is smart and uses its excellent cast well enough to raise the bar a bit for breezy larks and big smooches.
The more familiar name is Pegg, the cult movie hero who hasn't let a few recent clunkers diminish the audience enthusiasm he's built-up for roles in movies like Star Trek and the Cornetto Trilogy. But Bell is the more fascinating presence: she's garnered big laughs in alt-comedy circles with Children's Hospital and the Wet Hot American Summer franchise, and isn't afraid to raise her voice on women's roles in film, as she proved to a literal degree when she wrote, directed, and starred in the whip-smart Hollywood voice-over satire In A World... So seeing her in a rom-com lead role, as opposed to the best-friend types she's played in stuff like No Strings Attached, carries promise that the film knows how to say something new about this this well-trodden genre.
Man Up starts with a gimmick — Bell's lovelorn thirty-something bumps into Pegg's chatty divorcée in a train station and allows him to think she's his blind date—but the obligatory scene where the character reveals her dishonesty comes much earlier than expected. That means screenwriter Tess Morris gets to pull her comedy from (hallelujah!) something other than the broad misunderstandings that define bottom-feeding rom-coms.
Nancy (Bell, showcasing her accent skills), who's so out of tune with proper social interaction that she sees nothing wrong with using her hair as floss, is sick of the endless parade of bad set-ups her friends thrust on her. But the woe-is-me act changes once she gets to orbit the life of a stranger. Seeing that her accidental date Jack (Pegg) was expecting a woman nearly half his age, and that he's still hung up on his ex-wife to a pathetic degree, gives her leverage to probe him as to what, exactly, he was expecting out of a gathering like this. Nancy has also selfishly foregone her parents' 40th wedding anniversary to go on this spontaneous date, something Jack is able to attack in equal measure as their evening progresses from bowling alley to bar and their chemistry flips from electric to toxic and back again.
By not allowing her film to hang at the mercy of the "Idiot Plot" (per Roger Ebert, a plot that avoids the one simple conversation that would solve everything), Morris can dig into the eccentric human behavior that really defines relationships. And the leads, sly and witty and often talking over each other, don't have to play things too broadly. Are two people who aren't getting any younger repeating decisions that will doom them to lives alone? Can they find happiness in each other, or just mirrors of their worst selves? Director Ben Palmer, best known for the TV series and movie The Inbetweeners, has fun with the desperation at the heart of these questions, and by extension, at the heart of the pair's very long night. A silly race across town, which in another movie would feel wholly unnecessary, works here because of how the film has established the push-pull dynamic of these characters.
There are some clunky threads, including a familiar "pretend to be my girlfriend" gambit and a doofus former high school classmate of Nancy's (Rory Kinnear) whom, we gradually learn, has been stalking her for years. The "lovable stalker" is a strange bit of cartoon darkness in a film that's otherwise refreshingly down-to-earth. But it's not enough to derail the good vibes Man Up has for us. With a lot of help from Bell and Pegg, the movie cheerfully suggests it's possible to stage a lighthearted romance without dropping off your brain beforehand.
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