Directed By: Ben Palmer
Stars: Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Ophelia Lovibond, Rory Kinnear, Olivia Williams, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott, Harriet Walter
The tagline for ‘Man Up’ is ‘right time, right place, wrong date’. My description would be ‘right cast, wrong movie’. American actress Lake Bell (In A World) and TV and cinema’s über-nerd Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Star Trek) have such chemistry, it is a shame that their movie together isn’t better. It is the cinematic equivalent of frozen fish – it could be tasty, but you have to thaw it and cook it first.
The biggest mistake Tess Morris’ screenplay makes is setting the action over one day. Having endured the theme party from hell (a Hawaiian should just be a pizza), thirty-four year old Nancy (Bell) heads back to London to prepare for her parents’ 40th anniversary birthday party, where she intends to deliver the keynote speech. Nancy, we learn, is some sort of freelance journalist who has shunned social media – but that’s all right, you can trace her through her by-line. Finding Nancy becomes a key plot point later on, but I’m surprised no one thinks of this.
On her train journey, she devours a breakfast baguette (heck, it made me hungry) opposite Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond), a 24 year old city worker who is also a tri-athlete – but obviously not full time – and a devotee of a self-help book designed to enhance your positive outlook. She has been set up to meet a forty year old male under the clock at Waterloo Station. What sort of cruel person would pair up a 24 year old with a forty year old?
The only (non-cynical) reason women are attracted to men dealing with their mid-life crises is because the men have achieved something but fallen off the path. Women then take pleasure in saving them and enjoy the male gratitude that results. I’m not recommending this as the foundation for a solid relationship; women should prefer muesli, not being a muse.
Nancy is thoroughly offended by Jessica’s attempts to fob her off with self-help claptrap, so much so that she shushes her and falls asleep. When she awakens, Jessica has gone, but left her book behind. Nancy pursues her to return it, ends up under the clock at Waterloo, and who should meet her but Jack (Pegg). In their first three minutes, they make a connection over a line from The Silence of the Lambs, so much so that Nancy pretends to be Jessica.
What follows her is a marathon drinking session: ales at a pop-up bar on the South Bank; shots at a Mexican bar over the river; multiple beers at a bowling alley (Bloomsbury Lanes). A minimum of food is consumed. At the alley, Nancy runs into Sean (Rory Kinnear) who had stalked her during her school years and, even sixteen years on, still has a picture of her in his wallet. At this point, the film truly lost the plot, though credit to Kinnear for giving a fearlessly funny-creepy performance. Sean threatens to reveal Nancy’s true identity if she doesn’t pleasure him sexually. (Is there such thing as a comedy non-consensual blow job?) Naturally, Nancy doesn’t agree but the masquerade doesn’t last.
Over the rest of the evening, the script contrives to keep Nancy and Jack together. I won’t go into details, but they involve Nancy meeting Jack’s estranged wife (Olivia Williams) who looks at her with severe, narrowed eyes. Williams, who once starred opposite Kevin Costner in The Postman, a film which I’m sure she wishes had been returned to sender, sports a bad haircut with the front ends chopped unevenly. Her character is treated rather cruelly; I didn’t believe that she would spend a Saturday night at a Mexican wine bar with her new boyfriend (Stephen Campbell Moore). Surely, she would have traded up to dinner dates with friends.
There is quite a good sequence in which Nancy proves she has tri-athlete capabilities in two of three disciplines, running and cycling – there is not so much call for swimming in Soho. (Is the Marshall Street Pool still open?) When Nancy helps Jack to deal with his estranged wife, negotiating his tidal wave of emotional pain – I guess that must be the swimming bit – you feel the connection between the characters.
The contrivances stack up until the last minute, with Jack finally meeting Jessica and racing to make his feelings known to Nancy. By this time, I – and the Saturday night audience in East London with whom I watched the film – was unconvinced. Quite apart from the structure, which forces contrivances – the best romances feel unforced – Bell’s character, Nancy, is ill-defined. We learn that she was in a relationship for six years, but it didn’t work out. So now she’s cynical. But Bell doesn’t play this as a dominant characteristic. Instead, Nancy is rather frivolous, taking away someone else’s date. The filmmakers assume they can make this idea work because Nancy is more of a suitable blind date for Jack than Jessica. But you don’t buy Nancy’s desperation for a lasting relationship between kindred spirits as more deserving than Jessica’s. Accepting that this is a contrived comedy, I felt that Nancy’s character – her problem – should have been more clearly defined at the beginning.
Man Up was filmed at the beginning of 2014 and has taken seventeen months from shooting to screen. It is usual for test screenings to fix character problems. What happened?