Written by Tess Morris
Directed by Ben Palmer
UK, France, 2015
At 34, Nancy (Londoner-accented Lake Bell) is a flakey journalist on the reluctant look for love at the pestering of friends and family. Through a case of mistaken identity hinging on a self-help book, she winds up on a date turned epic day with Jack (Simon Pegg), an online marketing manager. Charming, right? It’s this on-the-nose “charm” which will divide audiences into lovers and haters (with this viewer falling more towards the latter). In spite of a stellar cast, Man Up falls flat on its promising premise of being a rom-com for nonbelievers.
From the very outset, Nancy is the cool-not-cool girl of quirky nonchalance – watching Silence of the Lambs, writing affirmations in her moleskine, chomping on a baguette, flailing in interactions with members of the opposite sex. Everything she does and says denotes a certain out-of-place yet above-it-all persona, including ordering room service while her friend’s engagement party takes place just a few floors down to avoid a blind date. Instead of reinforcing her journalistic pursuits (which field or specialty isn’t specified, as in the rom-com tradition), Nancy’s “well-meaning” friends and family pointedly and repeatedly tell her she needs to put herself out there, be more positive, and find a mate. (Think a less punchy, less bittersweet Bridget Jones’s Diary supporting cast.) But maybe that’s because between Nancy and Jack there wasn’t enough punch to go around?
On the train, Nancy sits across from her too-perfect foil Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) – a put-together, self-help reading, “works in the city” 24 year-old. They spit and they spat and Nancy winds up with the girl’s book, which was meant to be Jessica’s signifying prop for a date set-up (You’ve Got Mail already took Pride & Prejudice, right?). Racing after with all good intentions (as pointed out incessantly in the later half of the film) and book in-hand, Nancy whirlwinds her way onto that date with a similarly prone to verbal awkwardness Jack, the aforementioned online marketing manager with a purported penchant for painting.
I write purported not just because of the joy of alliteration, but because this throwaway detail is meant to show some deeper value to an otherwise overly superficial, nice guy-type character. After spending a banter-filled day together (they drink beer, she eats crisps, he quotes Silence of the Lambs), 40 year-old, clearly emotionally-damaged divorcee Jack is appalled at Nancy’s inevitable “big reveal,” standing agape and astounded that she is not 24, does not “work in the city” and is not a triathlete. Though never fear, through some more reveals and alcohol-fueled shenanigans, the two do wind up with a messily tidy ending that eerily echoes The Beautician and the Beast.
The dialogue and acting are strong where the plot is weak. There’s a great sparking chemistry between Bell and Pegg, zinging and zanging through a day of emotional hurdles and verbal gymnastics. Their rapport becomes the film’s real backbone and nearly whisks you away to overlooking the rest of its faults. One of those faults being the overuse of Nancy’s creepo former schoolmate (a too-zesty Rory Kinnear – think The Proposal’s Ramone meets The Cable Guy) as an off-putting plot device, acting both as a hindrance and catalyst. Another is the underutilization of its female supporting cast (Harriet Walker and Sharon Horgan bland-ed into “supportive family members,” Olivia Williams delivering her best bitchface on a few lines) and Stephen Campbell Moore (Bright Young Things, The History Boys), who does little more than some lechy, Jude Law-meets-Hugh Grant glances. If the audience can climb on (and not fall off) the Bell-Pegg bandwagon, Man Up will be a festival favorite.
In tackling and embracing the tropes of the ever-shitted-on romcom genre, Man Up becomes a dys-romcom – a frightening world determined by its characters’ frustrations with romcom standards. Protesting too much, Man Up trips down the hole of “the more you try to avoid something, the more you suffer” (Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain) and still winds up as yet another shallow, image-invested romcom, lacking the indelible warm-gooeyness that makes the genre work. It wants to be both cynical and romantic. Not that those are mutually exclusive, but Man Up fails to reach the right rhythm between witty barbs and hogwash sentiment. Frankly, Man Up should have Woman Up-ped with investment in multi-dimensional characters and less reliance on throwaway cultural cues and attempts to subvert trodded-out tropes.