Telling a woman to “man up” doesn’t exactly count as progressive, but at least the British romcom Man Up reverses gender stereotypes less clumsily than Trainwreck did. Here, it’s Jack (Simon Pegg) who’s prone to public crying jags yet undeterred from seeking happiness, and it’s Nancy (Lake Bell, doing a passable English accent) who’s retreated from the world and prefers to sit around lip-syncing all the dialogue from The Silence Of The Lambs. That’s about as distinctive as the movie gets, though. Apart from a brief, glorious stretch during which Jack and Nancy actively despise each other, allowing Pegg and Bell to truly cut loose, Man Up mostly squanders a promising premise and hits a whole lot of familiar beats. Nancy’s “mantras,” written in a notebook, include “Put yourself out there” and “Take chances,” but she’s stuck in a movie that isn’t terribly interested in doing either. Rather than aim for uproarious, it constantly settles for amusing.
Shame, because the meet-cute had real potential. On a train to her parents’ house to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, Nancy sits opposite a chirpy, pushy young woman named Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) toting a self-help book, which she urges cynical Nancy to read. Jessica even winds up leaving her copy of the book behind for Nancy—though she has to quickly buy another at the train station’s bookstore after disembarking, because the book is her equivalent of a white carnation, meant to identify her to the blind date she’s meeting at the station. Instead, Jack, the blind date, mistakenly assumes that Nancy is Jessica, and Nancy, feeling lonely and finding him appealing, doesn’t correct his error. This proves a bit tricky, since Jack was expecting a 24-year-old triathlete, but Nancy manages to keep the charade going… at least until she happens to run into an old classmate (Rory Kinnear) who’s been nursing a crush on her since grade school and sees an opportunity to leverage his knowledge of her real identity into some nookie.
For some reason, this whole first section of Man Up, with Nancy pretending to be Jessica, falls oddly flat—the jokes are feeble (Tess Morris, whose only previous credit is “additional writing by” on the widely panned The Love Punch, wrote the screenplay), and the deliberate awkwardness between Nancy and Jack feels more strained than comedic. Once Jack discovers the truth, however, the movie abruptly kicks into high gear, because he behaves like a normal person in that situation would: He’s appalled by Nancy’s deception, not charmed. His derision unleashes hers, and while there’s little doubt that they’ll end up together, their chemistry is strongest at its most Sam-and-Diane, with Nancy in particular going to town on 40-year-old Jack’s obsession with her being 34 rather than 24. Things revert to formula not long thereafter—director Ben Palmer (The Inbetweeners Movie) breaks out George Thorogood’s “Bad To The Bone” for a scene of decisive action, and shoots Jack running in slo-mo to Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” for the climax—but it’s refreshing to see psychopathic romantic behavior acknowledged as such for once.