The mainstream movie world hasn’t been too kind to romantic comedies in recent years, mostly eschewing the kind of charming fare that Nora Ephron, Tom Hanks, and Meg Ryan built their careers on (at least, the humorous and heartwarming side of their careers) in favor of chemistry-less offerings that fail to do anything new and films that are stuffed to the gills with multiple intersecting storylines, all the better to divert attention from a lack of sweetness and humor in each individual story. The golden age of the meet-cute rom-com – basically, the nineties – fizzled out long ago, gone the way of scrunchies and AOL chat rooms, and audiences hungry for original love stories with laughs to spare have been forced to look beyond the multiplex. And the snappy, smart, and undeniably sweet “Man Up” fills that gap with ease, a new wave rom-com unafraid of old school trappings.
All the familiar pieces are here: Lake Bell stars as Nancy, a ditzy Brit who is pathologically unable to put herself out there, while Jack (Simon Pegg) is a newbie divorcee who still isn’t over his ex. That the two will fall in love is a bit of a given, but director Ben Palmer and screenwriter Tess Morris take such obvious delight in getting there – delight couched in a rich understanding of the rom-com form – that the film itself can’t help but be lovable.
The film is principally concerned with Nancy (that Bell is charming enough to sell a mostly bad fake English accent is testament enough to her work here), and we meet her first, as she’s attempting to give herself a pep talk that’s inspiring enough to force her to attend a rollicking engagement party, complete with a friend-of-a-friend set-up date. Armed with a list of wide-ranging “nantras” given to her by her loving sister, Elaine (Sharon Horgan), Nancy clearly wants to engage with the world – the party is being held at a hotel, and Nancy has gone so far as to travel there, get a room, and get dressed – but her fear of striking out holds her back from ever getting into the game.
Bound for home after a disaster of an evening, train passenger Nancy falls into uncomfortable chat with the perky Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond, who should be cast as Alison Brie’s sister in something as soon as humanly possible), who is giddily toting a self-help book she whole-heartedly believes that messy, unsettled Nancy could benefit from reading. Jessica is traveling to London to meet a blind date – her own set-up! – who will identify her by her location (under clock) and by a held item (the book). Busybody Jessica leaves her book for a snoozing Nancy, and toddles off to grab a new copy before her beau arrives. Nancy, however, gets there first. Jack gets there second. Jessica is busy buying a book. Turns out, the book did bring Nancy some luck.
Half-surprised, half-confused, and entirely insane, Nancy pretends to be Jessica, and a nervous Jack goes with it (why shouldn’t he, right?). What follows is a series of rom-com-branded mishaps and mix-ups, the kind that are, appropriately enough, both very funny and very sweet. “Man Up” is clearly aware of its genre and the kind of tropes that are prevalent within it, but instead of ignoring them or trying to twist them into something ironic, the film simply embraces them, from an extended dance sequence to a continued theme of coincidence. The film is rife with contrivances and clichés, but it engages with them in a respectful and clever manner, enough to sell even the silliest ideas. “Man Up” knows what it is, and the result is unexpectedly refreshing and exceedingly charming.
Bell and Pegg exhibit a fizzy and immediate chemistry that holds consistently throughout the film, a tall order considering how many different permutations their relationship goes through over the course of just one evening. Pegg has repeatedly tried his hand at funny love stories in the past, but he’s never been as gamely cast as a romantic lead as he is here. Although both Nancy and Jack have issues to spare, they are wholly recognizable in their apparent oddness. They’re actual characters – not caricatures – that will likely remind the audience of their cool friend so-and-so or the fun guy at work, not some larger-than-life wacko who is kitted out with quirks and oddities for the sake of making a film more amusing or off-kilter. They’re people well deserving of love, just like “Man Up.” [A-]