D: Ben Palmer / 88m
Cast: Simon Pegg, Lake Bell, Rory Kinnear, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott, Harriet Walter, Ophelia Lovibond, Olivia Williams, Stephen Campbell Moore, Paul Thornley
Outside of his collaborations with Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, and his work on the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises, Simon Pegg hasn’t had the kind of success on his own that you might have expected. Which is odd as Pegg has an agreeable, friendly persona that is instantly likeable. Perhaps the issue has been the choices he’s made over the years: a few mildly amusing comedies that haven’t really stretched his talents as a comic actor, or even been that funny. Movies such as Run, Fatboy, Run (2007) and A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012). Otherwise there’s been a lot of voice overs, a couple of dramas, several shorts, and a role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Thankfully though, Pegg made a very good choice when he decided to take on the role of recently divorced Jack in Man Up. It’s a smart (and more importantly) funny romantic comedy that focuses on Nancy (Bell), a thirty-plus woman whose track record with the opposite sex has been less than stellar. Continually pushed to meet a man and settle down before it’s too late by her sister, Elaine (Horgan), Nancy isn’t so sure that she’ll ever meet Mr Right, and probably not even Mr Not-Quite-Right-But-Near-Enough. But things are about to change. On a train to London – travelling to make her parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary celebrations – Nancy meets Jessica (Lovibond), an ambitious young woman who is on her way to meet a blind date. Jessica swears by a self-help book called Six Billion People and You, and believes Nancy could benefit from its advice. By the journey’s end Nancy has fallen asleep, the train has arrived at Waterloo, Jessica is nowhere to be seen, and she’s left her copy of the book behind.
Nancy gets off the train, taking the book with her, and soon finds herself talking to Jack (who believes he’s talking to Jessica). With her sister’s pleas to “take a chance” popping up in her head, Nancy pretends to be Jessica, and so she and Jack embark on “their” date. And thanks to Tess Morris’s deft screenplay, what follows is engaging, funny and credible as Jack and Nancy get to know each other and find they have quite a lot in common, even down to an affection for the same pop culture references. But there’s a fly in the ointment, in the form of Sean (Kinnear), who works in the bowling alley they go to, and who has maintained a stalker-type crush on Nancy since they were at school. When he overhears her being referred to as Jessica he sees his chance to worm his away into her affections.
Nancy manages to avoid being exposed, but only just. Jack’s suspicions taken care of they find themselves in a bar where his ex, Hilary (Williams) and her new husband, Ed (Moore), turn up. The four share a table and soon each couple is trying to outdo the other in terms of how happy they are. Nancy and Jack agree to pretend to have been together for longer, and they soon make Hilary and Ed feel uncomfortable. Having exorcised some of his demons, Jack and Nancy agree that they should see each other again, but Nancy’s decision to be honest about her deception proves to be a deal breaker, and back where they started at Waterloo Station, their potential love story comes to a halt. Or does it…?
Long-time fans of romantic comedies will know the answer to that one. And what follows does tread a predictable path, but it’s the way in which Morris’s script allows Jack and Nancy to get to know each other that is the movie’s main strength. As mentioned above, as a couple they’re engaging, funny together and the chemistry they develop is entirely credible. So much effort seems to have gone into making their liking for each other so believable, that watching them spark and riff off each other becomes immensely rewarding. A big part of this, of course, is down to the playing of Pegg and Bell, both of whom take to their roles with undisguised glee and enthusiasm. As a result, their efforts make spending time with Jack and Nancy as infectiously enjoyable as it must have been to portray them. They’re exactly the kind of characters you’d want to spend time with in real life.
The supporting characters are generously drawn and brought to life, but with the exception of Sean, whose inappropriate comments and references are given life by Kinnear’s adoption of manic mannerisms and wild-eyed mugging. It’s an over-the-top performance in a movie that otherwise takes good care to ground its other characters and make them believable. If Kinnear is playing Sean as he’s written then it’s the script and the movie’s most obvious failing; if he’s not then someone should have taken Kinnear aside and pointed him in the right direction.
Palmer, whose experience is largely in TV, and whose previous big screen outing was The Inbetweeners Movie (2011), directs with an understanding that, despite Pegg’s top billing, this is Bell’s movie. Nancy is the main character and we see almost everything from her perspective. And Bell is terrific throughout: vulnerable, appealing, funny, exuberant, and self-aware. You can see the character grow in confidence as the movie progresses, and by the end you can’t help but want Nancy and Jack to be together; nothing else would be appropriate or meaningful enough. Pegg is equally impressive, and supports Bell all the way, and together the duo are generous with each other in their scenes, allowing each other to shine and giving themselves the space to do so. In these days of risqué, gross-out gag-ridden romantic comedies that constantly refrain from doing anything as challenging as just putting two people together and seeing how their relationship develops, Man Up is a pleasing, enjoyable antidote to all the cynicism that can be found pretty much everywhere else.
Rating: 8/10 – a wonderful romantic comedy that wears its heart on its sleeve, Man Up is a consistently amusing, and lively romantic comedy that features good performances from (almost) all concerned, and a script that never loses sight of what’s credible; one to watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or with the one you love curled up on the sofa, this is a movie that rewards time after time after time.