Man Up avoids all romantic comedy cliches right up until it doesn’t
The romantic comedy is both the easiest and hardest genre of film to pull off. On the one hand, all you need is a man and women who initially seem to hate each other, some whacky hijinks that bring them closer together, and a final, cliché-ridden speech about love, and you’ve probably got a hit film at the box office. On the other hand, romantic comedies have gotten so stale and repetitive that it’s hard to remember the last genuinely good one.
Man Up initially seems to fall into the latter category. 34 year old singleton Nancy (Lake Bell) is mistaken for 40 year old Jack (Simon Pegg)’s younger blind date. Deciding to go along with it, Nancy and Jack run around London getting to know each other, while dealing with creepy high school stalkers (Rory Kinnear), bitter ex-wives (Olivia Williams), and the fact that Nancy is not who she says she is. For at least half the film, Man Up seems to be a genuinely cute, likable film with a sharp script by first time writer Tess Morgan. Disappointingly, the film descends into the same arguments, misunderstandings and clichéd speeches of every other romantic comedy in existence.
Chemistry is perhaps the most important thing in a film like this, so it’s great to see that Lake Bell (sporting a pitch perfect English accent) and Simon Pegg have it in spades. After her excellent work in directorial debut In A World…, Bell is quickly becoming one of the most likable new faces in comedy, and she even manages to convince in the film’s least inspiring moments. While it is somewhat strange seeing Simon Pegg play a character struggling with a mid-life crisis (I still think of him as the geeky twenty something Tim Bisley in Spaced), he does some very good work, managing to be almost touching as he confronts the fact that life hasn’t turned out exactly how he planned. The faults of Man Up are absolutely nothing to do with the actors, and almost totally to do with the writing.
The first sign of trouble is Rory Kinnear’s appearance as a creepy bartender who happens to be obsessed with Nancy. Kinnear is a terrific talent, both in serious drama (he was one of the highlights of last year’s The Imitation Game) and comedy (he regularly crops up in comedies like this and Cuban Fury), so it’s baffling why director Ben Palmer cast him to play a whacky, ridiculous stalker. I don’t say it lightly when I say the character is abysmal, completely over-the-top and hideously unrealistic. It feels like a character from a film far, far worse than Man Up, perhaps a relic left over from Morris’ days writing for the dire My Family. The same can be said of Olivia Williams as Jack’s miserable ex-wife, spending her brief running time scowling and unleashing unpleasant put downs. While Man Up’s plot is hardly believable, the quality of the two leads and the relatability of their dialogue makes the film feel somewhat realistic. Both Kinnear and Williams’ characters feel completely jarring and wrong for a film like this.
The first half of Man Up is really quite lovely and mostly funny, and perhaps that’s why the second half is so disappointing. With Nancy and Jack, it truly felt like Tess Morgan and Ben Palmer might have just managed to reinvent the rom-com wheel, if only slightly. Once Kinnear and Williams turn up, you can feel the film beginning to turn into a standard British comedy (and not a particularly good one). Despite a few scenes of interest and real emotion (like Jack’s breakdown in the toilets, or Nancy’s great speech about sex in relationships), Man Up mostly becomes about arguments during eighties dancing, misunderstandings in train stations, and a final mad dash to give the rousing speech. File this one under ‘ultimately disappointing’.
By Harry Ford