An interesting trend has developed in the rom-com world lately. Even though Hollywood has pretty much given up on the genre (well, unless Judd Apatow is involved), “date nights” remain a thing so these movies haven’t completely died out. However, now they tend to fall into the indie sector and come from filmmakers who genuinely love the format. As a result, the genre has quietly gotten better even though the box office figures have fallen. There’s yet to be a genuine classic to come out of this movement, but ‘Man Up’ comes as close as any.
Despite a wonky conclusion that sticks a little too close to convention, the film is quite an entertaining trip through the motions, and boasts one of the most charming and delightful flirtation sparring partners in many a moon.
Lake Bell stars as Nancy, one of those cynical types whose unfortunate past has led to a willfully celibate present. She simply can’t be bothered to try to find a date anymore, and is far more interested in ranting about why relationships are pointless or quoting ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ instead. On the way to her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, Nancy accidentally stumbles into a blind date with Jack (Simon Pegg). More specifically, she pretends to be the blind date he was waiting for. The two hit it off despite that foundation of lies. Inevitably, the whole thing falls apart. Flirting turns to bickering, which circles back into a genuine connection. It’s a pretty clever spin on a well-worn tale that might run out of twists by the end, but at least it falls into a genre that kind of needs the obvious end point to succeed.
The script by Tess Morris (whose only previous film credit was “Additional Writing” for the abysmal ‘The Love Punch’, so we’ll have to forgive her for that) is filled with amusing banter and hilariously oddball supporting characters. Even rom-com clichés like the “stalker ex” and “bitchy ex-wife” manage to deliver some genuine laughs thanks to strong casting choices and the fast-paced, yet light touch of director Ben Palmer (‘The Inbetweeners’). On a certain level, the movie is a series of box-checks for rom-com requirements, yet it’s also a sincere attempt to revive the clichés with rom and com elements that work. Somehow it does.
The main reason is of course the central casting. The immensely talented Lake Bell has a knack for turning disarming cynicism into a lovable character trait. The best part of bad movies for years before becoming a filmmaker herself, Bell is an endlessly endearing screen presence, unafraid to look bad or push into uncomfortable areas. She’s perfect for the awkward comedy premise and sarcastic streams of dialogue, and even tosses in a surprisingly credible British accent for good measure. Simon Pegg slides right into his comfort zone of uncomfortable humor, disarming geeky charm and credible emotional breakdowns. The two share believable chemistry instantly and serve up a couple just rough enough around the edges that you’ll actually want to see them end up together. It’s not just a pair of famous pretty people going through the rom-com motions; they feel like real people screwed up in all the right ways to be a perfect match.
Despite some ill-advised slips into slapstick, ‘Man Up’ works perfectly for about 70 minutes or so. At that point, the filmmakers go all-in on a big, splashy, speechy and pop-music backed romantic finale that feels a little forced. Given all the ways that they managed to hit the required beats while avoiding the most obvious clichés up until that point, it’s a shame to see the movie end in such an obvious manner. Still, at least the grandiose emotional crescendo feels more earned than not. The fact that everything leading up to that point works well enough to show the creakiness of the finale is kind of a testament to the strength of the film in a weird way. It’s not a perfect rom-com, but it is a funny, sweet and effective one. That’s an achievement in itself. Hopefully, plenty of similarly cynical romantics as the main characters will stumble onto the movie while it plays theaters, even if the title sucks.