Published Nov 19, 2015In general terms, the romantic comedy has become stagnant. The genre is synonymous with schmaltz and a farcical, arguably irresponsible, presentation of amorous entanglements that simplify and idealize heteronormative partnership in superficial, unrealistic terms. It's reached the point of satire in popular culture (quite literally with They Came Together) that indicates exhaustion and a need for reinvention.
Ben Palmer's dreadfully titled Man Up — written by up-and-comer Tess Morris — doesn't exactly reinvent the genre. Rather, it adheres to it with an astonishing mix of self-consciousness and abandon, generating comedy from the familiarity without ever tipping its hat to the audience by acknowledging its own wittiness or removing us from the escapist fluff unfolding. Where it excels is in complex, idiosyncratic character compositions that have a natural momentum and some hilariously clever dialogue to support the utterly ridiculous, madcap series of misadventures that occur.
Nancy (Lake Bell) is the romantic comedy archetype: she's in her early 30s; she's unlucky in love; and she's nearly given up on the possibility of finding romance. Nancy is the supportive best friend and reliable family member that helps make everyone else's significant life events feel special without ever having any of her own to share. Early in the film, after a laugh-out-loud exchange with an uptight passenger on a commuter train about self-help books, she's thrust into an unlikely situation. Said passenger had a blind date set up, and the visual indicator was to be said self-help book, but after she leaves the book behind with a chapter on negativity passive-aggressively earmarked for Nancy, our protagonist inadvertently happens upon Jack (Simon Pegg), the man the prissy passenger was supposed to meet.
Though the premise is absurd, it works quite effectively due to the basic likeability of Lake Bell, whose portrayal of a socially awkward woman prone to blurting out highly inappropriate one-liners is worth the price of admission alone, and Pegg's low key, moderately self-deprecating charm. The dialogue is consistently engaging and unpredictable, making the many protracted scenes of talking a delight to watch. This is particularly evident in a mid-movie sequence with Jack's ex (Olivia Williams), when Nancy decides to make the woman as jealous and uncomfortable as possible.
Now, stepping back from the sheer pleasure of watching two actors with great chemistry and presence play off each other, Man Up is technically quite bad. Its aim, though intentional, to adhere to all of the worst Rom-Com clichés (the ending is simultaneously groan-inducing and hilariously apropos) is unbelievably cheesy and easily criticized. Similarly, the implication that long-term love can be established in just a few hours (with an abundance of binge drinking and inappropriate public washroom antics) is perhaps a tad insulting, reiterating dominant cultural falsities about romantic partnership.
But, given its potty-mouth and surprisingly balanced appeal — it's as crass, inappropriate and linear as it is sappy and predictable — and everything in between, these occasionally painful plot developments are easy to overlook. In fact, ignoring the basic stupidity of it all, Man Up is a wholly entertaining and often riotously funny feel-good comedy that's almost entirely successful in its decidedly limited aims.