There must be a rule for watching and writing rom-coms, and that is that the protagonist must do something objectively terrible. In Man Up, Lake Bell (doing an impeccable English accent) pretends to be someone’s blind date. She, Nancy, is a thirty-four year old woman who has been out of the dating game for a while, and like all of us, is struggling to commit herself to self-improvement. A mix-up in Waterloo leads to her taking a chance and assuming the role of Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond), the twenty-four year old blind date of forty year old Jack (Simon Pegg). One selfish and spurious act leads the two on a night full of incident and quite possibly, romance.
This is as pure a rom-com as there has been in ages: there is not a single ounce of cynicism or even a new spin on things. Instead writer Tess Morris has created a two very sympathetic and human characters in Nancy and Jack, both of whom are pretending to be people they’re not. Pegg and Bell’s characters as written aren’t meant to be 100% compatible, but their clear chemistry (as shown in a rather excellent bowling montage) make their relationship worthy of our attention. This is also Bell’s film. The opening ten minutes, as slightly slow and lacking in urgency as they are, are all about Nancy. Pegg’s Jack is a complete stranger to the audience when Nancy meets him. The viewpoint of a grown woman, not a flighty and pixie-esque twenty-something girl is undeniably refreshing, as it enables every cliché to be approached from a more cynical and seemingly real, but gradually more open perspective.
This is a clichéd film, yet the clichés are true. Morris clearly loves the genre and leans hard into every possible trope, with such confidence (and a tight and clearly structured plot) that it’s impossible not to get swept along. The messages are winningly delivered by many familiar faces, few of whom are A-List, none of whom are bad. Even Rory Kinnear’s Sean, who feels as if he has walked in from a completely different, more cartoonish film, works, not only because Kinnear is funny, but because everyone around him knows he doesn’t belong. His introduction is the start of a shift away from a realistic and dialogue driven film, into more clichéd territory, but because of the empathetic, well-played characters, and the incredibly tightly written script, this shift never feels like a shock. If it does, then you aren’t ready for a real rom-com. For those that are, this is truly delightful.
Man Up (2015), directed by Ben Palmer, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.