Man Up is about as typical a rom-com as you can get. Unlucky-in-love lead stumbles into a promising romance but has to lie to keep it going. The tone, the structure and yes, the humour, are indeed all familiar, and yet Man Up winds up feeling fresh. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ve got a good idea of the film’s plot, but, thankfully, its core gimmick ends up being one stop along a fun and evolving ride. Man Up may be a romantic comedy that plays it pretty safe, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the better ones.
We meet Lake Bell’s Nancy right after being introduced to the exact sort of social event she has no place in. Stalling in h
er hotel room as the party she was invited to rages downstairs, Nancy is somewhat resigned to her loneliness, and would much prefer the safety of TV and room service than risk humiliation by talking to men. Nevertheless, after some unwelcome life-coaching from an unbearably perky train-goer, Nancy decides to buck her usual timidness and do something spontaneous and foolish by posing as her fellow traveler and stealing her blind date.
OK, “stealing” is probably a bit strong, since Nancy ultimately stumbles into the situation after an initial case of mistaken identity. But after a torrent of endearing god-help-me-I’m-trying awkwardness from Simon Pegg’s Jack, Nancy jumps into the con headfirst and keeps it going as long as she possibly can. Admittedly, the set-up is a bit silly and probably not enough to sustain a whole film on its own, but it’s here that Man Up shrugs expectation and proves to be something worthy of your time. First and foremost, the film’s major conceit doesn’t outstay its welcome; the jig is up thankfully early and acts mainly to set the stage for a fun comedy that unfolds organically and with refreshing momentum.
Rather than structuring itself around Nancy trying to keep a lie going, Man Up instead becomes a film about one long London night for its two leads. While Jack initially enjoys the moral high ground, the pair go back and forth swapping the upper hand, bouncing between making fools of themselves and winning each other over. While they’re both quite careful and shy before Nancy comes clean, they have no problem yelling at each other and calling each other out on their BS once the veil is lifted. Beneath their anger and annoyance though is tangible growing sympathy that really does sell the pair as a couple you want to see. Add Bell and Pegg’s excellent chemistry to the mix and even the most cynical viewer will be rooting for them as a couple.
While the pair are excellent when they are sharing the screen, something is definitely lost in the scenes they are apart. Nancy, in particular, loses a bit of her zest and feels like more of a genre cliché when alone or bouncing off the extended cast. Bell, charming as ever, is an easy personality to love and Nancy gives her a few good jabs, but she simply isn’t as interesting when not being pushed or challenged by Jack. For this reason, the film does take a while before it really gets going. Were it not for how pleasantly surprising the plot becomes, Nancy’s earlier wallowing could have set the scene for a much more forgettable film. Jack fares a little better in this regard with Pegg’s slightly more seasoned comedic timing and his character’s more honed-in material, but since he isn’t given much screen time of his own until the final act it may be a little unfair to compare.
For a British comedy, there is a somewhat glossy American feel to the whole affair. Lovers of dry English wit might read that as criticism, but it really isn’t meant as one. The grand, cute setup of the film, the big romantic finale and even the lead characters themselves all feel very Hollywood, despite the London setting and Lake Bell’s newly adopted accent. It’s a style that is extremely digestible, but the abundant character comedy, particularly from Pegg and Bell (with a notable mention for the very creepy Rory Kinnear), ensure there’s still plenty of bite to the comedy as you cruise through its extremely brisk runtime.
While it does at times danger towards tired rom-com staples, Man Up is so much more than just its logline despite being such a bit-size comedy. Brief though it may be, Man Up delivers its comedy with confidence and a surprising amount of personality, thanks largely to an extremely well structured script from Tess Morris and two undeniably lovable leads. The ending may be a little saccharine, but as the climax to Bell and Pegg’s crazy night in London, I’ll be damned if it didn’t hit home perfectly.
I walked into Man Up expecting to roll my eyes, but came out with a big goofy smile. This is a fun little comedy I would happily recommend to anyone.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10