Man Up

November 6, 2015
Simon Pegg & Lake Bell in 'Man Up' (2015)
Simon Pegg & Lake Bell in 'Man Up' (2015)

Ben Palmer is another director who has spent much of his career in television, but Man Up has more verve than most romantic comedies. There are moments when this movie becomes genuinely funny and anarchic, but the claims of the genre keep reasserting themselves, allowing the return of the godawful sentimentality that makes such films irresistible to certain audiences and unbearable for others.

In the latter category are those who simply cannot believe in the world as a place where everything works out in the end. In every romcom we know that as soon as boy meets girl the outcome will be a happy one, regardless of the misadventures they endure on the way. In the real world disappointment and disaster are the most likely results – which is why people turn to the movies for fantasy wish-fulfilment.

In this film, Simon Pegg, as Jim, becomes the latest screen comedian to play the romantic lead. Perhaps the idea is that women allegedly like men who can make them laugh. His female counterpart is New York actress, Lake Bell, who manages a serviceable British accent and has all the best lines.

Bell’s character, Nancy, is a journalist in her mid-30s, who has never had any luck with relationships. She is on her way home for her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, when fate intervenes and she is mistaken for another woman. Jim, a hapless divorcee, believes that Nancy is the 24-year-old triathelete he is supposed to meet for a blind date. Almost to her own surprise she finds herself playing along. The evening gets better and better as they go to a bar, and then a bowling alley.

Nancy still has to deal with the small problem of telling Jim she is not named “Jessica”, but that seems almost immaterial. The crash occurs when she encounters Sean (Rory Kinnear), the creepy boy from school who always had a crush on her. Nancy’s cover is soon blown she and Jim begin exchanging insults, but she still agrees to play the role of his lover when they meet up with ex-wife, Hilary (Olivia Williams) and her merchant banker boyfriend, Daniel (Henry Lloyd-Hughes).

This is probably the best part of the film. The worst bit is when Nancy finally makes it to her parents’ anniversary party, feeling distraught at having met and forsaken Mr. Right. In fact she was lucky to have missed her father’s truly sickening speech, extolling undying love for his wife. We, the viewers, are forced to watch it all. By the time the Nancy and Jim saga had reignited, I had just managed to unclench my teeth.

Man Up is far from perfect but it is much to be preferred to another new romcom, Sleeping with Other People. The comparison tells us much about the way the Americans and the British do “romance”. The characters in Man Up are awkward, diffident and given to self-deprecating humour. In the American film, the two leads, Jason Soudeikis and Alison Brie, are sexually self-confident, smooth and vain. We are presumably meant to find them attractive, but they become progressively more irritating with every passing minute.

The American film is the story of two people who manage to maintain a platonic friendship while pursuing their sex lives elsewhere. In Man Up, the characters are so insecure that they babble uncontrollably. Each of them is desperate to find a partner, and incapable of concealing their nerves. The thought of drawing a line between love and sex (or friendship and sex), is inconceivable. Who could afford to be so blasé that they play cool with their true love object while hopping in and out of bed with other partners? This describes the Jason Soudeikis persona in Sleeping with Other People, who is somehow supposed to engage our sympathies.

In fact we are far more likely to connect with the British characters played by Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, who carry so much emotional baggage they are jumpy and restless in each other’s presence. When they encounter Hilary and Daniel, Jim doesn’t know whether to be aggressive and sarcastic, or burst into tears. Nancy’s solution is to boast about their utterly pornographic love life, just to unsettle the balance of power.

Instead of the endless, wordy self-elaborations of Sleeping with Other People, the humour in Man Up is usually based on a piece of slapstick. Whenever speechifying takes over from situation comedy the film loses its edge and devolves into scenarios that recall popular monstrosities such as Love Actually. It may be that even in a romcom, action has to take precedence over words. The saving grace of the movie is that everything takes place during a single wild night, with no room for recriminations or consequences. It’s yet another way in which cinema is an improvement on life.

Man Up
Directed by Ben Palmer
Written by Tess Morris
Starring Simon Pegg, Lake Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Rory Kinnear, Olivia Williams, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Ken Stott, Harriet Walker
UK/France, rated MA 15+, 88 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7th November, 2015.