Man Up review: a film that treats female singledom as if it were cancer

Too much of the behaviour of the main characters is shitty – and too much of the script is stolen from Bridget Jones or Richard Curtis

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

Man Up

15, Nationwide

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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  • Callipygian

    My question is this: I know that Hugh Laurie does a great American accent (actually there are many American accents, and if you know ’em you can usually place ’em, even though they might only be subtly different), but in a country such as England filled with zillions of talented native English actresses, why did the film need an American with mimicked vowels, consonants, and intonation?

    I’m not saying that every American could do it. I am often struck by the nasality of American accents (which seem to be more pronounced in some states than others); and let’s not mention the ghastly honking of the New York accent — which must be an oversalted stew of every ethnicity that ever walked into that town. It’s pierogi meets sausage meets spaghetti meets knish, and by god the result is a mess.

    Since we’re on the subject, I have never met a single American yet that can or does naturally pronounce the short vowel ‘o’, as in ‘hot’. It would mean pursing their lips as if about to blow out a flame. Whereas Americans always draw their lips back to produce — you guessed it, a drawl.

  • ilPugliese

    I saw this film because you said it was so bad (critics and me seem be opposites) and it was quite good, even funny. It did have the problem with bringing it to a close as you do with plots that are quite interesting. I don’t understand why all ends must be tied up in these films. It it’s going well, then they should just stop and we can make it up ourselves. I would rather walk out enjoying myself than sit through prolonged silliness.

  • Toby Guise

    Readers, do not believe Deborah. The film is ten times worse than she has made out. Romcoms are supposed to stretch credulity in the service of warming our hearts. The more implausible this one becomes, the more depressing the result. The script; the fact it was made at all; the society which it purports to reflect: all these things combine rather like the smell from a old bin, which clings to you even when the experience is over. I am reluctant even to pick up a book for fear that the film’s aftertaste would sully my enjoyment of it.

    You don’t have to be a feminist who throws up their hands at the notion that a 34-year old single women might be lonely – which is what most reviewers have done – to recognise that this is a sickeningly depressing, badly-made, derivative, and nihilistic piece of rubbish. The fact that hundreds of eager young script writers were probably overlooked in order for this to be made only makes it worse. I can only imagine the entire the production team got so caught up in the film’s terrible conceits that they actually believe they were making something good. I can only hope that some if not all of them have run away to join accountancy firms by now.

    Deborah, I politely submit that, in this case, ’tis you that need to man up; as you really let it off far too lightly.

  • Jennifer Lucia

    I get what you’re saying but I enjoyed the movie. You seem to make this a feminist issue, when it’s clear the male lead was also just as desperate for a mate. There are several ways that this movie could be interpreted really. Most people genuinely want someone to share their lives with. It doesn’t make them any less of an empowering person if that’s the case. It was clear that she really wanted a partner in life and her family was sympathetic to that. If she wanted to be a proud, single feminist and stand on her own her family may have supported her in that. In your article you basically state that there is something wrong with a 34 year old woman wanting a partner, which I don’t think is really true.