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Which is more insulting: The notion that a woman who’s single at 34 is a failure, or “man up,” one of the dumbest colloquialisms to become a movie title since “booty call”? Potential offensiveness notwithstanding, the particular 34-year-old Lake Bell plays in Ben Palmer‘s Man Up is a wreck for reasons all her own, independent of societal pressures — a raw nerve of insecurities whose suffering reminds us that no matter how old one is, being alone when you don’t want to be feels like hell. Thrown into a blind date with an older man (Simon Pegg) who talks a good game but is his own kind of mess, she’s a sympathetic heroine for an off-kilter crowd-pleaser of a rom-com. Commercial appeal is strong, even if multiplex auds haven’t embraced Pegg as a romantic lead to the extent they have in geek-friendly comedies; Bell’s momentum after In a World … should help significantly with the smart set.
Bell’s Nancy isn’t just failing at romance, she’s disappointed with herself in most respects. Her to-do list includes directives like “be more deviant” and “cook more.” But her openness to outside advice extends only to friends and family: She has little patience for a 20-something fellow train passenger (Ophelia Lovibond) who perkily insists that a certain self-help book will change her life.
It does, though: The book is part of a mix-up in which Pegg’s Jack mistakes Nancy for a blind date a friend has arranged. In a misguided fit of carpe-diem, Nancy refuses to correct his misunderstanding and pretends to be “Jessica” for the next hour or two.
The pair’s immediate, easygoing connection gives the lie to the well-intentioned baloney their friends spout when trying to set them up with other singletons. Sure, copious tequila shots help, but chemistry can’t be manufactured out of a few shared interests and friends in common; in-the-flesh encounters surprise us all. Things are going great when the unfortunate chance arrival of a high-school acquaintance (Rory Kinnear, giving comic life to a character with some over-the-top obsessions) blows Nancy’s cover.
The exposure of her lies makes screwball antagonists out of Jack and Nancy, who argue their way through a few scenarios that force them to stay in each other’s presence longer than they want to. We know how this will play out, and one’s enjoyment of the next act depends largely on one’s tolerance for middle-aged masculine self-pity and spontaneous choreography to the lesser hits of Duran Duran.
Both actors stay sharp through some pretty degrading moments, and if Palmer and screenwriter Tess Morris are bent on serious button-pushing in the closing scenes, at least they garnish it with playfulness and wit. One example that shouldn’t be spoiled here, a Silence of the Lambs allusion exploiting numerous earlier references to Clarice Starling and Dr. Lecter, displays a fanboy knowingness one wants to credit to Pegg and some frequent collaborators on the producing team. At the same time, it weaves seamlessly into the conventions of romantic comedy without drawing attention to itself. The effect is less of a Hot Fuzz-style appropriation than a wink to the crowd, as if to say, “Yeah, this love-story business is kind of beneath us all, but we also can’t stop wanting it; let’s suck it up and move forward together whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
Production company: Big Talk Productions
Cast: Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Rory Kinnear, Olivia Williams, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sharon Horgan, Harriet Walter, Ken Stott, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ophelia Lovibond
Director: Ben Palmer
Screenwriter: Tess Morris
Producers: Nira Park, James Biddle, Rachel Prior
Executive producers: Matthew Justice, Simon Pegg, Dan Cheesbrough, Jenny Borgars, Danny Perkins, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer
Director of photography: Andrew Dunn
Production designer: Dick Lunn
Costume designer: Suzie Harman
Editor: Paul Machliss
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Casting directors: Nina Gold, Theo Park
Sales: Aska Yamaguchi, StudioCanal
No rating, 87 minutes
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