Man Up is a British rom-com starring Simon Pegg as Jack and Lake Bell as Nancy. Nancy’s problem, at the outset, is that she is 34 and still single — has yet to ‘man up’ — and is therefore a failure, and if you can buy that as a premise for a film, then that’s your look-out. I’m old and I’m tired and I can’t be always telling you what’s right and what’s plain wrong.
So it opens with Nancy, who is single (at 34!; the horror!), attending a friend’s engagement party and refusing to come down from her hotel room as her love life, we are given to understand, has been somewhat disastrous and now she has a pathological fear of putting herself out there. ‘I’m such a failure,’ she keeps boo-hooing, more or less. In the end, she has to be talked down by her sister Elaine (Sharon Horgan) over the phone, although if I were her sister I’d say, ‘You’re boring me, you big sap. Why not just go read a good book or something? Many females lead full lives as undefined by a male, in the short term and in the long term. It won’t kill you.’ But all Nancy’s family treat her singledom as if it were stage IV cancer, and are thus compelled to check up on her condition at all times. Needless to say, Elaine is married, and has A Husband, so she’s all right. No fears there. Phew.
Next it’s Nancy on a train, compiling one of those self-improvement to-do lists — achieve ‘stronger thighs’; do a ‘black pant wash’ — as beloved by Bridget Jones, and as stolen from Bridget Jones. But she’s disturbed by the chirpy young woman sitting opposite who, it turns out, is an ardent advocate of a self-help bestseller and is on her way to a blind date with a man arranged round their mutual interest in said book. This is Jessica (as played by the wonderfully named Ophelia Lovibond), who then leaves her book on the train and as Nancy rushes to return it to her at Waterloo station, she runs into her date, Jack. As she has the book in hand, Jack assumes she is Jessica, and Nancy decides not to disabuse him. The fact that stealing someone else’s date is a shitty thing to do is not meant to concern us. Similarly the fact that Jack is in the throes of a divorce and has always intended to take Jessica to the bar his soon-to-be-ex-wife frequents, to wind her up, is also not meant to concern us, even though that is a shitty thing to do too. We are meant to root for Jack and Nancy and adore them even though they are shitty and even though you’d rather sink forks deep into your own eyeballs than hang out with either and even though you want a sinkhole to appear and swallow them up. That would’ve been good.
But instead the pair go drinking and he sees her self-improvement list so she has to pretend ‘black pant wash’ is a hot new band, ha ha. They also go bowling where Sean (Rory Kinnear), a former classmate of Nancy’s from school, threatens to unmask her. Sean (still Rory Kinnear, not giving the most subtle performance of his career) has long harboured a crush on Nancy and while his lecherous behaviour is intended to be purely comic it is actually quite stalkerish and quite sexual-assaulty.
As directed by Ben Palmer (Inbetweeners) and written by Tess Morris, this embraces all the rom-com clichés, starting with the mistaken-identity business and working its way via montage scenes and some embarrassing dancing until finally (finally! Thank God) ending in one of those grand gestures beloved by Richard Curtis, and stolen from Richard Curtis. No one expects cinema to be real life but it must, at some level, approximate to an idea of real life, and this never does. Would anyone as luscious as Nancy — Lake Bell is truly luscious — suffer from a lack of romantic opportunities? Also, this all happens in the course of one evening, when Nancy should have been attending her parent’s 40th wedding anniversary party, where she was due to give a speech. She’s not bothered about letting them down? And when she finally does turn up, hours late, her parents aren’t furious? Jeez, I’d give my kid hell, if my kid ever did that to me. I’d knock my kid into next week.
Pegg and Bell do their best, but they don’t have much to go on, and if there was any sexual chemistry between the two, it utterly passed me by. As for the basic premise, this film doesn’t so much fail the Bechdel test (look it up) as deface the paper before ripping it up with an evil cartoon laugh. Nice.
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