‘Man Up’
Director:
Ben Palmer
Stars: Lake Bell, Simon Pegg
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

We live in a post-rom-com world. Things are so grim even the genre’s most beautiful stars, like Matthew McConaughey, swear them off so they can dress up like professional alcoholics and rework their careers. If they exist at all we expect them to be at least mildly self-aware, to reinvent the genre or to be rooted in real anxieties. “Sleeping with Other People” did all of these. The new, British “Man Up” does a bit of the last one. Its two maybe-probably-lovebirds — Lake Bell’s Nancy and Simon Pegg’s Jack — are getting up in years, or at least at the point where they should have long ago figured out how to nab and/or keep their life partners. They haven’t, and nor are they conventionally rom-com gorgeous. There’s a desperation here, as though time, for them, is running out.

But that’s just the foundation. Mostly “Man Up” is about its genuinely semi-unique big rom-com hook. Nancy is a 30-something journalist largely comfortable with having given up on love. By a convoluted series of misunderstandings more goofy than strained, she winds up mistaken for another woman, who is supposed to go on a date with Jack, a recent divorcee who at least puts on the airs of bubbliness. He talks a lot, sometimes about how what he really wants to do is paint, and he chats so much the more shy Nancy hardly finds the chance to tell her he’s got the wrong person.

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Nancy will be forced to spill the beans earlier than most rom-coms would, but the classic question still stands: will they or won’t they, even despite the subterfuge? The answer should be obvious, and the script, by Tess Morris, does come up with some decent turns to fill the time before the inevitable. It also comes up with some over-determined bits, chiefly a beyond disgusting freak obsessed with Nancy to the point of taking pictures outside her bedroom, and played with no sense of a ceiling above him by the usually reserved and considerate Rory Kinnear. 

But most of the film’s charm comes, as expected, from its two leads. Pegg is sharp and alert and eventually enjoyably grouchy as ever, but Bell gets the meatier role. The actress doesn’t yet have a shtick set in stone, and she likes to roam about genres. She brings that lack of ease to Nancy. She should be a Bridget Jones clone, and she is, to a degree, but Bell makes her a bit weirder, a bit creepier. (She really likes rewatching “The Silence of the Lambs,” which is a quietly uneasy touch.) 

We may not, for most of the first half, be sure of this woman, who lets a ruse go on longer than it should have, who doesn’t always talk, who can’t even come up with decent on-the-spot lies when Jack starts inquiring about details they shared over email exchanges. Even when we are given the official OK to like her, she remains flawed and interesting, even a little sad, not just a flower waiting to bloom on cue. A fair amount of “Man Up” is stock, and it can often seem like a mere forgettable genre grinder elevated by its lead actors. But at this point in film history, a simple, ably-done rom-com feels more daring and refreshing than one that tries to reinvent the wheel.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge