Lake Bell pretends to be Simon Pegg's blind date in this charming update on the misunderstanding-based rom com.
Man Up (Tribeca Review)
From its premise alone it would be easy to discard Man Up in the same waste bin with Kate Hudson’s career from ’06 to ’09 and rejected Katherine Heigl movie pitches. After a night of heavy drinking, and yet another failed first date, Nancy (Lake Bell) gets mistaken for another woman at the train station only to end up on a blind date with Jack (Simon Pegg), a man that she actually could see herself dating. It feels unfair to try and defend the movie against all the romantic comedies that this one isn’t, because Man Up is an exceedingly charming unlikely love story with quick wit and hilarious performances despite any semblance to worse films. Having held its premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, the movie is hardly a revelation within the rom com subgenre. The best thing about Man Up that less successful versions of this movie lack is Lake Bell in the lead role.
To this point in her career, Bell has largely been relegated to the supporting parts in films like It’s Complicated or No Strings Attached. Even her memorable TV appearances (Boston Legal, How to Make It In America, Children’s Hospital) feature her among an ensemble of funny actors. It was Bell’s feature filmmaking debut in 2013, In a World…, that helped to exhibit her magnitude and versatility in a starring role. As Nancy in Man Up, Bell once again demonstrates her mastery of accent work, seamlessly adopting a British inflection to her lines. She’s able to sell rapidly exchanged pieces of dialog and broadly absurd physical comedy; however, Bell appears so earnestly genuine that it’s impossible to deny her likeability.
Man Up begins by moving through a raucous hotel-set engagement party as a couple sneaks away to copulate in their room. Locked away by herself in the next room is Nancy, reciting a list of mantras into her mirror. She hopes to overcome her anxiety about the man downstairs whom her friends have set her up to meet, but first orders room service to avoid being at the party. Eventually, her date goes poorly and the next morning Nancy is hung-over on a train to London for her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Across from Nancy’s seat, a peppy, optimistic 24-year-old named Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) flips through a copy of a self-help book before giving her copy to Nancy out of concern. Unfortunately for Jessica, the man she’s arranged to meet for a blind date, Pegg’s character, sees the self-help book with Nancy and mistakes her for the 24-year-old he planned on taking out.
The implementation of a misunderstanding as the impetus for romance has been a staple of cinema since movies like Bringing Up Baby, yet its overuse has made the more recent occurrences frustrating to watch. Man Up largely, though not entirely, avoids this issue two ways. Firstly, the meet cute between Nancy and Jack is actually fairly relatable and sweet, with both characters attempting to diffuse an awkward situation in a friendly way. Secondly, the misunderstanding is dealt with somewhat early rather than strung along for the duration of the film to provide a cheap, unnecessary twist in the third act. Nancy reveals that she’s not the woman Jack anticipated going on a date with less than halfway through the movie, and the two characters reassess their situation and advance the plot. The changing relationship dynamics throughout Man Up helps keep the Jack and Nancy romance engaging.
The pace at which all of the characters deliver their lines maintains a lively energy as scenes barrel forward. When the writing hits a false note, as it does a few times in the movie, the bevy of silliness and funny repartee surrounding it elevates the mediocre moments. There’s an infectious tone in Man Up, one that’s played for some broad laughs, but is mostly written to feel real. While the extent to which certain situation are heightened can be preposterous, the performances of both Bell and Pegg ground the film in a version of reality, and provide likable, empathetic characters in the lead roles.
The inconsistency of the humor does put a slight damper on Man Up as a whole. Rory Kinnear plays Sean, an old schoolmate of Nancy’s who had a crush on her, and goes to the extent of manipulating an uncomfortable kiss from her in the women’s bathroom. Kinnear’s performance becomes such a caricature that Sean feels like a character written for a different, dumber film. Sean and Nancy’s “intimate moment” gets interrupted by Jack, who enters the restroom despite Nancy’s not having been away for an egregious amount of time, and doesn’t act apologetic for intruding. The scene registers as forced in comparison to the rest of the absurdity in Man Up, which develops more naturally despite its wackiness. The occasional logic flaw breaks the momentum of some scenes, but is far from enough to disrupt the thoroughly pleasant experience in Man Up.
Fewer and fewer romantic comedies have broke through with audiences in the past few years. The only films in the genre to surpass $100 million at the domestic box office anytime this decade were Just Go With It ($103M), Valentine Day ($110M), and Silver Linings Playbook ($132M). Occasional subversions of the romantic comedy norm (Appropriate Behavior or They Came Together recently) manage to earn attention with critical acclaim, but rarely does the genre produce something quite as comfortable and entertaining as Man Up. The movie likely won’t amass a huge box office haul or garner the type of enthusiastic reactions that its more unique romantic comedy counterparts receive, but its charms are hard to resist and welcomed in an environment lacking quality films of its type. The combination of Bell and Pegg with fast-paced material and a few broad set pieces makes Man Up a completely enjoyable modern rom-com.