Now on Netflix: Man Up
When my wife acted surprised that I had chosen a romantic comedy when it was my choice for weekly movie night, I had to admit that I was confused for a moment which one of us had actually added Man Up to the queue.
To me, most romcoms are the same as my beloved superhero films are to her: pretty much all the same, and disappointingly predictable.
But I remember, vaguely, seeing a trailer for this little-known British comedy, released last year and streaming now on Netflix, and registering that Simon Pegg was in it. When it popped up on Netflix's suggested or new releases list, I added it to the list, because hey, you never know. And it just so happened last night that we needed a 1.5 hour film to squeeze in before the Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
Boy, am I glad it turned out. I don't know if I ever would have given it a second glance, when there are so many other things on my list that I haven't gotten to yet. It delighted at every turn, and even though it may have built to an inevitable conclusion, the filmmakers did enough solid work up front so that I actually cared about the characters.
Written by Tess Miller, directed by Ben Palmer, and starring Lake Bell and Simon Pegg (who also executive produced), on its face, Man Up has the set-up of a stereotypical romantic comedy. 34-year-old Nancy (Bell, who is so convincing in her accent that I had to look up if she was really English) is a wallflower who has gone through a series of poor relationships in her recent history, and refuses to "put herself out there," regardless of how hard her sister (Sharon Horgan) or her friends may try to push her. As she travels to her parent's 40th wedding anniversary where she is meant to give the keynote toast, she runs into a bright-eyed, eternally optimistic young woman, Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) who eavesdrops on Nancy's cynical phone conversation about relationships with her sister. Jessica is on her way to a blind date, firmly believing that two people who have everything in common can fall in love at first sight. When Nancy scoffs at her naïveté and rebuffs her, Jessica leaves her an unflattering note in the book that was meant to identify her to the date.
Chasing Jessica down on the platform to presumably give her an even harsher rebuke, Nancy of course winds up running into Jessica's mystery date, Jack (Pegg). And Jack of course instantly mistakes Nancy for Jessica, setting up what could have otherwise been a fairly boring, predictable comedy. There is some humor in the initial meeting and first date as Nancy pretends to be someone she's not, a 24-year-old triathlete in a business she's never heard of. But the filmmakers choose to thankfully break the mold by having Nancy reveal to Jack about thirty minutes into the film that she is not, in fact, Jessica. Then the real fun begins.
Pegg, playing what is probably just his normal, instantly charming self, imbues Jack with even emotional layers to make him more than just a stock "perfect guy" trope, and Bell, who I now firmly believe is criminally under-utilized in the American film industry, is by turns hilarious, jaded, foul-mouthed and sympathetic. The pair exudes chemistry, and the film turns into a buddy comedy of sorts as Jack and Nancy encounter more than a few twists and turns before Nancy finally makes it to her parents party to make her speech, but not exactly the one you'd expect.
It's a refreshing departure from American storytelling, which undoubtedly would have kept Jack in the dark about Nancy's true identity until the very end, leaving very little time for his shock and anger to subside before the "will-they-won't-they" question reaches its inevitable conclusion. But the journey that the characters take is vastly different because they actually have time to get to know one another as real people, so by the end, you actually care about them and what happens to the pair of them.
It also deserves to be mentioned that the excellent Rory Kinnear, whom I only recognized as a bit part from the recent Bond films, plays a hilarious and creepy ex-schoolmate of Nancy's who has stalked her since high school and almost derails the entire evening for Nancy and Jack more than once. It's a symbol of tight, smart storytelling when what you think is a throwaway, "joke" character comes back to play a pretty major role later on.
If you're looking for a fun, witty and genuinely funny comedy that still delivers on its genre premise, definitely check out Man Up.