Man Up is an unusually good film for a romantic-comedy that doesn’t wander too far from the genre’s conventions. It’s a modern take on thirty-something relationships, in the vein of Bridget Jones’ Diary, with an added dash of Trainwreck. Directed by Ben Palmer, the title is probably quicker to bring to mind visuals of some kind of outlandish bro-comedy of the frat boy variety, but what Man Up has to offer is some fairly smart laughs and a surprising amount of heart.
Nancy (Lake Bell) is a socially awkward Londoner, who has become fairly cynical (and slightly depressed) at the prospect of ever finding a datable man, all while keeping to-do lists with entries like “cook more” and “get stronger thighs”. After being accosted on a train by a perky twenty-something (Ophelia Lovibond) toting a best-selling self-help book as the answer to all her problems, Nancy can’t help but pessimistically scoff as she continues to chow down on the rest of her half masticated baguette. But when the other passenger’s blind date, Jack (Simon Pegg), mistakes Nancy as the woman he is meant to meet, she finds herself awkwardly posing as “Jessica” so that the two can continue on an alcohol-fuelled date. Soon, Nancy finds her attempt to take more chances paying off as they both appear to be exactly what the other was looking for, albeit with her under the guise of another person, although her façade may soon come crashing down when they come face to face with her manic high school stalker (Rory Kinnear) and Jack’s sour Ex-wife (Olivia Williams).
The film is rather slow to start, bogged down by having to set up it’s fairly clichéd characters in order to get them into position for the identity hijinks to begin. At first impression, Nancy is nothing more than what has become the new-modern rom-com protagonist: a woman completely downtrodden in love, skeptical of ever finding ‘the one’ while still retaining a glistening hint of hope that it will happen. She even comes complete with the stock-standard married sister (Sharon Horgan), who ‘has it all’, and acts like a love-mentor while spouting nuggets of inspiration like “he’s out there” and “be more spontaneous”.
Yet, once Nancy meets Jack, her character seems to flourish, dropping the chains of being suppressed in the depths of Bridget Jones’ shadow, and instead finds her footing as her own down-on-her-luck bachelorette. This is notably due to Bell’s (Childrens Hospital) superb performance, which brings a sincerity to her clumsy character when paired with her rather great comedic timing. She also delivers some strikingly emotional moments, which even the most cold-blooded audiences will have to fight not to find heart breaking, and all while donning a convincing British accent that will send most to quickly google whether she is in fact American.
Pegg’s (Star Trek) Jack suffers a similar impression earlier on as well, stuck as the nice guy with far too much in common with a piece of cardboard. Yet, once given the opportunity, Pegg brings a vulnerability that plays on the mid-life crisis cliché, refreshingly giving the man just as much baggage as his female counterpart, and averting what would have otherwise made his character into a living ‘red convertible’ joke in a lesser film. The real delight though, comes when the two are able to play off each other, having a natural chemistry that seems to grow as the characters do, and as the stakes are raised, find themselves in more precarious and exposing positions. There’s also Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), whose turn as the creepy bowling alley attendant with an outrageous high school crush has every intention of being a scene-stealer while bringing in the most laughs.
Man Up is one of the rare entries that seem able to stick to the worn path of the genre while still delivering something fresh. Even as most of the expected beats play out, Bell and Pegg are not only likeable enough, but also so engaging, that the fate of their characters actually matter, and even the most cynical of audience members might find themselves whispering under their breath, “What are you waiting for? He’s the one!”