After seeing actress Lake Bell in 2013’s In A World… and now starring in Ben Palmer’s Man Up, it’s abundantly clear she’s on her way to comedic stardom. Attractive in a girl-next-door manner and full of sharp, biting wit (accentuated by the British voice she parlays here), the only question is how big will she get? And in a film full of rom-com cliches and the typical hurdles, it’s her screen presence and chemistry with co-star Simon Pegg that saves the film from stifling minutiae.
One feels for her character, Nancy, immediately at the opening of Man Up when she opts for pay-per-view movies and hotel room service instead of dressing up and flagellating herself with the drunken social chaos ensuing at the wedding party downstairs. Hopeless in love and carrying a Sarah Silverman-like bitterness for happiness, Nancy is rattled from her complacency by her sister (Sharon Horgan) and ends up joining the party, where it ends just as badly as Nancy figured it would.
Barely recovered from that, we next observe her traveling to her parent’s house on a train where she comes in contact with perky and self-help brainwashed fellow traveler Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond). Recognizing the sour aura of Nancy, Jessica takes pity on her and sneaks her a copy of a bestselling positive thinking novel. It’s this innocuous act that sets in motion the switched-identity hijinks of the film.
Little does Nancy know, holding this novel in her hands at one exact spot in the train station is the visual cue for her blind date, Jack (Simon Pegg), to recognize her. Instantly wrapped up in his fast-talking charm and finding herself enjoying someone else’s company for a brief moment is too overwhelming for Nancy, so she plays along and pretends to be Jessica.
As mentioned earlier, it’s the natural interaction between Bell and Pegg that becomes the strength of Man Up. Both performances are so likable and engaging, the couple feel like they’ve been together on-screen for ages. There are even moments of touching depth, such as when Bell looks in the mirror at herself and displays a candid knack for expressing a range of emotions which hint at a more complex individual beneath the tired mechanisms of the comedy.
I wish there were more of these moments instead of the often perverse and sexually stunted laughs the film ultimately delivers. Especially distracting is the role of Nancy’s stalker ex-boyfriend, played by Rory Kinnear, that feels lifted from the raucous Farrelly Brothers comedies of the late 90’s. Instead of trusting the central relationship, director Palmer and writer Tess Morris feel the need to amp things up to broader scatalogical level. This may satisfy the teenage laugh tracks, but it detracts from the almost sweet compromise that develops between two middle aged people who learn to appreciate one another despite the wacky scenario that’s brought them together.
Man Up opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, November 20 at the AMC Mesquite.