Directed by Ben Palmer (The Inbetweeners Movie, Bad Sugar) from a script by Tess Morris (Hollyoaks, My Family), Man Up is a deceptively thoughtful film. It’s a little bit deeper than one might immediately surmise and it trades on that, offering up a surprising examination of relationships with a real bite to it.
Lake Bell (Boston Legal, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp) plays Nancy, a woman in her thirties who’d just as soon stay inside and watch Silence of the Lambs for the umpteenth time then go on a date. When, on the eve of her parents 40th wedding anniversary, she is mistaken for a man’s blind date, she inexplicably decides to pretend that she is for the evening.
The man, Jack (Simon Pegg; Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Star Trek: Into Darkness), seems perfect for her, babbling for a full two minutes upon meeting her, an unfiltered stream of thoughts that culminates in him quoting Hannibal Lecter before quickly realizing that memorable lines from a cannibalistic serial killer probably aren’t appropriate for a first date. It’s a simple but effective way to let both Nancy and the audience know there’s potential there, and it’s one of the most efficient establishments of a character I’ve seen lately. In a very short amount of time we get Jack as a person and it becomes much easier to accept Nancy’s spur of the moment decision and get on to the movie as a whole.
The opening act surprised me in its pacing, playing out how one might expect a first date to play out. The script holds the scenes for extended periods, and rather than quickly jump to the complications that will inevitably arise later on in the evening, the movie is content to allow the early scenes to draw out as we witness two people getting to know each other. Palmer uses a lot of extended shots in these sequences, relying on Bell and Pegg’s chemistry to dominate the early goings and demonstrate that perhaps the two characters actually are compatible. It goes a long way towards making what follows believable and while it drags a little at times, it’s an interesting path to take.
Indeed, the first act of the film is so rooted in the relatively mundane that it makes the film’s descent into absurdity later on that much more effective, culminating in a gloriously surreal sequence set to Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again. The movie never reaches the levels of pure insanity that a lot of other comedies do but it’s got a definite tendency to go to some weird places, helped along by an almost demented Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful, Spectre), whose turn as an obsessive crush/stalker of Nancy’s kick-starts the film’s second act and provides much of the more extreme moments.
It’s an incredibly funny film, but it takes its time setting up its jokes. It’s a slower paced creature, opting to shore up goodwill with the audience before unleashing a punchline and it has a much more meditated feel to it than so many other comedies that simply throw out joke after joke in the hopes that one sticks. That thoughtfulness extends to the movie’s themes, which deal with touchy subjects like divorce, social anxiety and the difficult and frightening idea of moving on. The film makes excellent use of Nancy’s parents for instance (a brilliant Ken Stott and Harriet Walter) and uses their long-running happy marriage as juxtaposition to Jack and Nancy’s romantic ineptitude to great effect. The film has big ideas, and it does a good job of expressing them.
The key component to all of this is Bell and Pegg by far. They’re brilliant together, parsing the material with confidence and style, and they bounce off of each other fantastically. Bell, an American, pulls off an unbelievably good English accent that never falters and Pegg channels a goofy energy to Jack that’s tinged with bitterness and sadness, a difficult combination if there ever was one.
Man Up is a great movie, at times hysterical and at others simply amusing but always fun. It explores territory that other comedies shy away from but it does so with wit and the occasional savage bite, preventing proceedings from ever getting maudlin. Its cast is uniformly excellent and its two leads are electric together, culminating in a wonderfully intelligent romantic comedy that impresses from its opening scene.