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That’s the premise behind Man Up (2015) where Jack (Simon Pegg), a 40-year-old recently single man looking for a chance at love is set to meet a woman at the train station. What he doesn’t know is that his date Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond), a perky, prim, positively perfect picture of proper, is riding the train, sitting across from a girl who is aggressively, shall I say, not any of those things. She is Nancy (Lake Bell), and when the two women have a brief albeit snidely-sided conversation, Nancy ignores her and falls asleep only to wake up with a copy of a self-help book that Jessica is reading (and a kind note to give it a read). The thing about the book though, and something Nancy knows full well, is it’s the identifier for how Jessica is meant to meet Jack.
With some good intentions (and maybe some that aren’t), Nancy rushes to the clock where the two are supposed to meet, hoping to give the book back (and a piece of her mind), but in walks Jack, spotting the signal and making the assumption that Nancy is Jessica. Nervously, he introduces himself and for a the next few minutes prattles on in high-speed, hoping not to lose her interest but also not letting her speak. He’s charming, quirky, adorable and when he’s done, she simply can’t say he’s made a mistake. She lies and the two head off.
Directed by Ben Palmer, Man Up doesn’t come with any surprises but is loaded with some powerful charisma. Both Pegg and Bell are supremely fun to watch and their comedic timing together is never dull. We are instantly drawn to both of them, as their vulnerabilities and sensibilities are exposed as the evening wears on and this is where the film really finds its stride and would have been a much better experience if it hadn’t been so adamant about sticking to the tried and true formula of the genre. It is a veritable checklist of romantic comedy cliches and while there’s no denying the likability of the stars, by the time it reaches its predictable mad dash to express one’s true love in a wildly public display, it’s cashed all of its charm checks. Good for a few laughs and two solid performances, this is standard rainy-day fare.
Nancy has confessed to Jack that she is not Jessica, and despite how well both have been getting on and the obvious physical attraction, Jack is upset and leaves her. Of course, circumstances bring them quickly back together at a bar and when his ex-wife shows up with her new boyfriend, he sees an opportunity to make her jealous by pretending Nancy is his new steady girl. Nancy, seeing the good in Jack and the smarminess is his ex-wife, plays along, exceedingly well. But despite the role-play, Jack knows none of her outward affections are true of course, and in a weak moment, escapes to the men’s room.
Jack hides out in a stall, breaking down while Nancy runs after him and boldly enters the restroom, despite a few occupants using the place. She discovers her “date” crumpled alone. She squeezes into the stall and kneels down in front of him and they begin to talk.
He’s distressed that his ex-wife appears so full of life and already in a solid relationship while he is barely holding on. He can’t seem to shake what they had and misses their marriage. Nancy consoles and explains that he is holding on to a feeling rather than the person and what he misses is the bond not the woman. She goes on to tell how she’s been single for four years after a long relationship ended and has yet to truly recover. The openness continues as they finally, after spending the evening together, start to ask the right questions, revealing who they really are, their jobs and aspirations.
She assures him that he is going to make it and that maybe he does need to go on some blind dates and discover himself more deeply. His tears are real and the genuine sadness as to the way his life has turned out moves her to tell him that he is an emotional jigsaw and that it’s now about finding the pieces to put it back together. “Start with the corners and look for the blue bits,” she says, saying that he must start simply and move toward the center.
It’s a touching moment that doesn’t try to be manipulative, instead offering one of the more authentic exchanges. The close quarters of the bathroom stall make it deeply personal and the framing of the two, with her kneeling at his legs as he folds himself upon the seat feel tender and nurturing. Nancy lets slip her façade of ambivalence and we see the light in her eyes. She cares and this is the moment when they both learn they are right for each other even if they don’t realize it.
Director: Ben Palmer
Writer: Tess Morris
Stars: Simon Pegg, Lake Bell, Olivia Williams