Man Up

There are those who mourn the death of the classic romcom, and those who prefer the genre in its newer, more Apatovian incarnation. Both groups would do well to watch Man Up, a British charmer that has one foot firmly planted in each camp. It’s full of meet-cutes and grand romantic gestures, just like your favorite ’90s classics, but it’s got the grounded messiness and R-rated jokes of a more modern affair. And it absolutely nails the most important aspect of any romcom: a lead couple with chemistry, in this case played by Simon Pegg and Lake Bell.

Directed by Ben Palmer and scripted by Tess MorrisMan Up has a central premise as contrived as they come. Perpetually single Nancy (Bell), fresh off of a disastrous set-up and bound for her parents’ 40th anniversary party, finds herself on a train next to Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond), a perky young stranger on her way to a blind date with Jack (Pegg).

Jessica is toting a self-help book that’s supposed to help her mystery date identify her, but she’s so struck by Nancy’s cynicism that she leaves the book for Nancy to keep. Nancy wants no part of Jessica’s self-help nonsense and chases after her to return the book — only to run into Jack, who mistakes her for Jessica. Nancy doesn’t bother to correct his assumption, and the two bond from there.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out. Initially I feared this meant we were in for a series of increasingly wacky hijinks, but to the film’s credit Nancy’s deception isn’t stretched beyond belief. In fact, Man Up only gets richer once the cat is out of the bag. Jack is understandably furious, but (there go the romcom contrivances again) they’re forced to endure each other’s company a little while longer. With little left to lose, they reveal their true selves to each other, and start to click in deeper, more complicated ways.

One of Man Up‘s strengths is its willingness to look beyond the initial stages of attraction and get to the appeal of an actual romantic relationship. While the central narrative focuses on getting Nancy and Jack together, other stages of romance are woven in throughout. The film opens at an engagement party and closes at a 40th anniversary one; in between, we also meet a happily married couple (and a less happy, less married one). As Hugh Grant once mused in another famous genre entry, love actually is all around, and Man Up makes a great argument for it.

Bell is superb as Nancy, who plays like a slightly more motivated, more put-together variation on her In a World… character. (But not too much more put-together: under her list of life goals, she scrawls “wash black pants.”) Pegg is every bit as good as Jack, playing against type as a dashing romantic. His resume mostly consists of man-children and goofballs, but it turns out “romcom leading man” is a niche that suits him quite well. He should consider slipping into it more often.

And like every great romcom pairing, Bell and Pegg are even better together than they are apart. Once the initial awkwardness is out of the way, Nancy and Jack develop a warm, lively rapport. Theirs isn’t a match made in heaven, but one made right here on Earth, with all the messiness and complication that entails. Even when Man Up employs the usual narrative cliches to pull them together or push them apart, Nancy and Jack’s connection feels genuine.

That irresistible chemistry makes it easy to gloss over the movie’s few flaws. The most glaring of these is a supporting character named Sean, who nurses a creepy obsession with Nancy going back to their childhood days. Rory Kinnear is a game comedic performer, but Sean feels lifted in from an entirely different movie. A Happy Madison production, perhaps, or something else broader and unkinder.

But Sean is a minor stumble in an otherwise enjoyable ride. Man Up is a classic romantic comedy about two people who are too old, too wise, too jaded for classic romantic comedies, and that’s precisely why it works. Nancy and Jack keep Man Up grounded in something real, while the flourishes of the genre serve to remind how magical love can be. Even when it involves people as imperfect as Nancy, Jack, or anyone else you might encounter in the real world.

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