‘Man Up’ Comes Appealingly Close To Breaking New Ground For Rom-Coms

Like most blind dates, Man Up has a lot of promise at first, but things start going sideways once you get a few drinks in. Everyone has their own version of their best first-date behavior, and Man Up‘s offers an encouraging first impression, presenting Lake Bell as Nancy, a smart-but-insecure perennially single 34-year-old Londoner. Nancy is acerbic, awkward, smart, and unsure of herself; she’d rather order in room service and watch Silence of the Lambs than meet the latest sad sack her married friends have dug up for her. In short, she’s interesting, and a grown woman, two fine qualities to have in a rom-com leading  lady.

Nancy’s sister Elaine (the always awesome Sharon Horgan from Catastrophe) and her friends are always exhorting her to “Put yourself out there!” and “See what happens!” and “Take a chance!” and all those other things that people who haven’t been single in a long time like to say. Nancy decides to give this iffy advice a go when a man in Waterloo Station confuses her for his blind date. Jack (Simon Pegg) is a 40-year-old divorcé with an incredible array of baggage, and he’s expecting to meet Jessica, a 24-year-old office gal who runs triathlons in her spare time. Nancy is surprised to find herself charmed by Jack, so she plays along and pretends to be this other woman — a woman who’s trying to be a little less defensive and more open to chance and to, you know, love and stuff.

As always with these sorts of mistaken-identity movies, it’s not a question of if, but when the truth will be revealed. (The film’s marketing also makes the ending fairly clear, but then again, did you expect an unhappy ending?) The brisk pace of Man Up puts the identity reveal at about the halfway mark, which leaves the characters another 40 or so minutes to run around London, drinking and taking jabs at each other and occasionally crying and/or vomiting. Nancy and Jack take turns being accusatory, mean, and self-pitying. The Sliding Doors-ish message of being open to chance gets a little lost along the way.

What makes Man Up stand out from the typical rom-com is its smart take on familiar material. Both Bell and Pegg have excellent comedic timing. They’re adept at physical humor, and they have good chemistry together. There’s bawdy humor, a dance number, and a grand gesture or two to boot. Man Up also takes aim at ageism in dating by showing just how affronted Jack is that his date isn’t 24 as advertised, but someone nearer his own age — and, big surprise, going on a date with someone 16 years your junior really isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s also rare to see an onscreen pairing being portrayed by actors who are in the appropriate age range; Bell and Pegg are about a decade apart in real life, but at least she was born in the ’70s.

At 88 minutes, Man Up could have stretched its legs and given us more time to get to know Jack and Nancy and Nancy’s family. Rather than gallivanting across London with a rando, Nancy is supposed to be giving a toast at her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. But instead of adding any narrative tension, it feels like an afterthought. That’s especially a shame because Horgan is so killer in Catastrophe and Pulling, and Ken Stott and Harriet Walter are equally charming as their parents.

Although Man Up doesn’t quite break from tradition — let’s not even talk about the sexist title, okay? — it’s leaps and bounds beyond what most grossly stilted American rom-coms offer. Lake Bell is endlessly watchable, and she has an impeccable English accent to boot. (If you haven’t seen In a World…, fix that ASAP.) It’s also cool to see Pegg as a romantic lead and not just another big-budget sidekick. The Cornetto Trilogy was delightful, but the other leading man roles he’s taken on just haven’t taken full advantage of his wit, intelligence, and physical comedy. So many modern romantic comedies are the equivalent of a date that pukes on your shoes and steals your wallet; at least Man Up wants to be friends.