The romantic comedy is a genre so often derided and so stale – past its prime as any kind of widespread draw – that it’s become the norm to be incessantly inundated with films that aim to subvert the whole thing, play with its tropes and shine some sort of light on its best and worst aspects.
Some of these films work, but the sheer number of them relative to the amount of classically romantic and/or comedic additions to the genre ensures that the effect has quickly worn off. The subversive rom-com, then, is now as spoiled as the thing it seeks to lampoon and, on paper at least, that may have been a worry of Ben Palmer’s Man Up.
The director’s follow-up to The Inbetweeners Movie, itself a comedy with romantic blatant elements, stars Lake Bell as Nancy, a cynical unlucky-in-love 30-something who finds herself pretending to be the 24-year-old blind date of Simon Pegg’s Jack, himself a 40-something divorcee.
It’s a farcical premise that is thankfully never really allowed go off the rails, mainly due to the two central performances and the commitment to keeping the date itself as painfully ordinary as possible. Jack and Nancy take a tour around typical date spots in London – South Bank; a bowling alley; a bar – all while Nancy tries to keep up the pretence that she’s actually Jessica.
In this sense, the film actually plays out like a deceitful Before Sunrise, with the two talking about various experiences, getting deeper and deeper into each others’ worries, hang-ups and attitudes towards romance as the night wears on. This kind of One Fine Day-esque structure can work so well when building up two characters and why they should be together for the audience, and Man Up takes real joy in exploiting this for its gain.
What’s more, Simon Pegg plays the hopeless romantic here, with Nancy the cynic in contrast, and this slight gender reversal keeps things interesting. While there are countless examples of the burned girl needing a pep-talk from a potential new love interest, here we see another side to that dynamic, and that alone is refreshing. Both are a mess, though, and this is what ultimately brings them together and makes them a believable couple.
Lake Bell is utterly charming throughout, pulling off an objectively shaky British accent, and without her some of the film’s iffy comedic ideas might have fallen apart completely. You’re tempted to use the work ‘adorkable’, a term that’s rarely applied to female protagonists really deserving of the moniker, and strikes just the right balance between awkward and endearing.
There’s a misjudged detour with an unrequited high school crush towards Nancy, which takes us to the creepy place and a disappointing look at gender politics that the film otherwise dodges, but its thankfully kept brief.
It’s a situation that provides the conflict for Nancy and Jack and, while it’s not surprising that they fight – it’s a prerequisite if anything – what is strange is how long that fight ends up lasting. Much of the film is one that simply follows two people who don’t really know if they like each other, and the joy is in seeing them work it out over the course of the night.
They represent two generations of the love-cynic, one never having quite recovered from a bad breakup when she was young and the other clinging to a failed marriage. Neither are one hundred per cent ready to date when we meet them, evidenced by a tragic vignette with Nancy on her own blind date at an engagement party at the start of the film, but that central conflict that has nothing to do with their relationship with each other is as good a driving force as any.
Never the cynical send-up of rom-com tropes that it threatens, Man Up ends up being most charming when it begins wallowing in the earnestness most entries into the genre actively avoid.
The trouble is that, after spending two thirds of the film being a slightly-farcical mistaken identity comedy with romantic elements, we’re thrown into something completely different and, while both of those films are good on their own, the switch has potential to give the audience emotional whiplash too near to the end.
But Man Up deserves credit for embracing the corniness of its roots, rather than distancing itself as so many have since the nineties heyday of British rom-coms. With a lot of the groundwork laid to make these people feel real, and their connection genuine, it comes off better than it really has any right to. Sometimes blind dates work out, especially when the people involved are honest about their intentions.
Man Up is in UK cinemas now.
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