Tribeca Film Review: ‘Man Up’

The delightful Lake Bell channels Bridget Jones in Ben Palmer's amiable, misleadingly titled romantic comedy.

With:
Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Ophelia Lovibond, Olivia Williams, Rory Kinnear, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Ken Stott, Sharon Horgan, Harriet Walter, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dean-Charles Chapman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

For viewers still waiting for the indefinitely delayed third “Bridget Jones” film, Ben Palmer’s easy, breezy romantic comedy “Man Up” offers a pleasant sense of deja vu: Not only does it trail the romantic misadventures of a klutzy London singleton, but gives a deft American actress an endearing Limey makeover in the process. Undisguised by a perfectly plummy accent, Lake Bell’s signature dorky charm lends distinction to this overnight tale of two lovelorn misfits struck by Cupid on a sabotaged blind date — with Simon Pegg sportingly playing second fiddle as her accidental suitor. Though this bouncily paced diversion is unlikely to hit the domestic B.O. paydirt of Palmer’s 2011 TV spinoff, “The Inbetweeners Movie,” it’s a far more exportable strain of Britcom, as indicated by its Tribeca premiere slot.

Palmer’s film has potentially given itself an avoidable commercial hindrance with its misleading title. While the phrase “Man Up” connotes a man-child comedy in the Judd Apatow vein, it’s the female perspective that dominates in the limber, funny script by first-time feature writer Tess Morris (previously credited with additional material on last year’s forgettable “The Love Punch”). Indeed, the titular directive is actually thrown at Bell’s socially awkward, commitment-shy protagonist Nancy — not as chaotic a romantic heroine as Amy Schumer’s eponymous “Trainwreck” in Apatow’s most recent venture, but a similarly welcome rejoinder to the kookily idealized fantasy women that have so long been prevalent in romantic-comedy terrain. Both films help even the gender scales in the delayed-coming-of-age genre — though, given some slightly hard pronouncements on its other female characters, it might be a stretch to call “Man Up” feminist.

“Laugh it up, girls — this is your future,” says Nancy to a gaggle of snickering teens following one of several pratfalls she endures over the film’s efficient 87-minute running time. As in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” single life is presented as an obstacle course of undue social pressure even for women of an early certain age: Nancy is just 34, but as she informs her married, prying older sister, she’s already “too old for this s–t.” A gliding opening sequence, set at a friend’s wedding, neatly contrasts one pair of guests’ swift hookup with Nancy’s reluctant, finally excruciating attempt to do the same. Though she professes to be contentedly unattached, the virtues of coupledom are oppressively advertised to her from all sides — by sources close to home, where her parents (Ken Stott and Harriet Walter) are preparing their 40th anniversary celebrations, and complete strangers.

Most invasive among the latter is Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond), an irksomely chipper young businesswoman Nancy encounters on a train, and an ardent advocate for a dating-oriented self-help bestseller. It emerges that she is on her way to a blind date with fortyish divorce Jack (Pegg), arranged on the basis of their mutual interest in the book. However, when Jessica leaves her copy on the train and Nancy attempts to return it to her in Waterloo station, she runs directly into Jack; based on the book in her hand, he mistakes her for Jessica. Intrigued and attracted against her better instincts, she doesn’t correct him, hijacking the other woman’s date in the process. Not all viewers will accept this arguably sociopathic move, but it’s a tidy meet-cute with an enjoyably farcical payoff as Nancy is forced to maintain her own false identity while feigning knowledge of his. Indeed, in this age of social-media catfishing, it’s not hard to imagine an alternative take on “Man Up” that frames this narrative as a psychological thriller.

There’s little such darkness here, however, as Nancy and Jack discover an immediate, alcohol-fueled chemistry and head out on the town together; her cover is blown, however, when they run into Sean (a gleefully manic Rory Kinnear), a former high-school classmate of Nancy’s who, it turns out, has been harboring an alarmingly obsessive crush on her for the better part of 20 years. As Jack learns of her deception, the recalibration of their relationship is somewhat accelerated to fit the script’s all-in-a-night structure, with many further hurdles along the way. One acridly amusing sequence finds Nancy and Jack posing as a more established couple when forced to share a bar table with his spiteful ex-wife (the ever-reliable Olivia Williams, here in fabulously tart form) and her new beau.

The upshot of this loopy masquerade is more predictable than it is progressive, but considerably pleasurable thanks to Morris’s generous supply of pithy one-liners and the resourceful, ribald skills of Bell, as engaging and elastic a comic everywoman here as she was in her impressive directorial debut “In a World … ” (Her styling, meanwhile, calls to mind Sally Hawkins, who could well have put a sweeter spin on the same role.) Playing another of his patented nerdy neurotics, Pegg is afforded less room to surprise — but after the horrors of last year’s “Hector and the Search for Happiness” and “Kill Me Three Times,” it’s a relief to see a less smug showcase for this persona. Among the supporting players, Kinnear has the role most obviously conceived as a scene-stealer, though Williams and the appropriately infuriating Lovibond score laughs in more meanly written parts.

Tech credits are brightly proficient, with d.p. Andrew Dunn giving neon-lit advertorial treatment to London’s South Bank and Soho night spots. Palmer’s musical selections are occasionally heavy-handed, though the inclusion of a new, woozily wistful closing credits ballad by gruff British romantics Elbow ends “Man Up” on a suitably mature note.

Tribeca Film Review: 'Man Up'

Reviewed at Dolby Screening Rooms, London, Feb. 26, 2015. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Spotlight.) Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Studiocanal (in U.K.) release and presentation of a Big Talk Prods. production in association with Anton Capital Entertainment. (International sales: Studiocanal, London.) Produced by James Biddle, Nira Park, Rachael Prior. Executive producers, Jenny Borgars, Dan Cheesbrough, Matthew Justice, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Simon Pegg, Danny Perkins.

Crew: Directed by Ben Palmer. Screenplay, Tess Morris. Camera (color), Andrew Dunn; editor, Paul Machliss; music, Dickon Hinchliffe; music supervisor, Nick Angel; production designer, Dick Lunn; art director, Andrea Matheson; set decorator, Anna Kasabova; costume designer, Suzie Harman; sound, Mitch Low; supervising sound editor, Jeremy Price; re-recording mixer, Nigel Squibbs; visual effects supervisor, Thomas Proctor; visual effects, Double Negative; stunt coordinator, Paul Kennington; line producer, Danny Gulliver; assistant director, Martin Curry; casting, Theo Park.

With: Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Ophelia Lovibond, Olivia Williams, Rory Kinnear, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Ken Stott, Sharon Horgan, Harriet Walter, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dean-Charles Chapman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

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