From “Spaced” to “Shaun of the Dead” to “The World’s End,” Simon Pegg has made a career of being a crushable nerd/lovable loser. But in “Man Up,” he sheds that geek persona to play a more straight-laced romantic lead. As a dapper London divorcée, he cleans up nice and yet loses none of his appeal.
Directed by Ben Palmer, the romcom made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where its domestic distribution rights were quickly snatched up by Saban Films. It’s easy to see why: Pegg and co-star Lake Bell are hilarious and heartwarming in the rollicking story of a cynic who steals a blind date.
How do you steal a blind date? Well, jaded journalist Nancy was just standing under a clock at a train station minding her own business when an enthusiastic and handsome man named Jack (Pegg) adorably accosts her, asking if she’s his blind date Jessica. Charmed and intrigued, Nancy gives in to impulse, and lies. So begins one of those hours-long dates that can feel like magic.
At first, I worried the mistaken-identities premise of Tess Morris’ witty script would go from cute to inconceivable before Nancy abandoned it. Thankfully, “Man Up” is set over one day, so the jig is up on Nancy’s ill-planned identity theft pretty quickly. But from there, Morris manages new snarls to keep this once flirting, now fighting couple together. In highs and lows and absolute insanity, Pegg and Bell make a monumental match. Their chemistry is sexually charged yet playful, making for an intoxicatingly sweet and smart comedy.
While the romantic comedy plot points of “Man Up” are familiar, the set pieces make it stand out. A montage sequence of Jack and Nancy at a bowling alley looks like an enviable good time, and an impromptu dance number feels ludicrous and superbly suited to this loony love story. Their banter is on point. And bickering that turns into a deranged dare — which involves a one-woman urban triathlon — proves Bell should be deluged with romcom scripts the way Kate Hudson and Reese Witherspoon have been. (Here’s hoping Bell is more selective.) All that builds to a finale whose grand romantic gesture is the stuff of Richard Curtis scripts, with a speech that will rival “When Harry Met Sally” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” for a place in the hearts of fans of the genre.
The only misstep is a bizarre supporting character named Sean. Played by Rory Kinnear, he’s introduced as a forgotten classmate of Nancy’s who could spoil her date by divulging her true identity. But the bit goes from amusing to cringe-inducing when Sean tries to swindle sexual favors out of her in exchange for his silence. From that moment on, I wanted him out of frame and far from our flawed but lovable leading lady.
Sean aside, “Man Up” is a lively, sexy and loads of fun. It’s full of laugh out loud moments, and laced with truly touching ones. Bell is brilliant. Pegg is perfection. And audiences will walk away with big fat smiles on their faces, and joy in their hearts.
“Man Up” is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival.
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