Like the three-minute pop song, the sestina or the knock-knock joke, the romantic comedy is a form. It has rules, some virtually inflexible (it should probably involve a couple, it should probably be funny, some conflict), some bendable (pretty much everything else).
As in any genre work, predictability is both an ally and enemy — knowing where to use cliché and when to avoid it is where the art comes in.
As “Man Up” (and first-time feature) writer Tess Morris pointed out before the AFF screening of her movie (a British film which has been out in the UK for months), what we were about to see was a romantic comedy, so if that is not a genre you like, please leave the Paramount now. It was a laugh line but an oddly refreshing one and a wise set-up: The movie you were about to see followed a formula.
And so “Man Up” did, to the immense satisfaction of the assembled. Couple meets, has wonderful time, a problem arises, both characters have a good, hard think about What They Really Want and everyone’s plot resolves with satisfaction in the end. It goes back at least to Shakespeare.
It also goes back to “Bridget Jones,” impossible not to think of when Lake Bell shows up with a British accent as Nancy, an awkward 34-year old journalist (her job doesn’t signify anything in the plot other than that her family thinks she is good at making speeches — sometimes, I think that word means something different across the pond) who has been single for a while and feels conflicted about it.
She is the sort who knows she should put herself out there more (she even writes it in a notebook) but refuses to do so at a friend’s wedding until the last possible second, with predictably lousy results. She has plenty of theories about sex and love, but not a ton of practice.
Enter Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) an type-A millennial Nancy meets on a train. Nancy’s negativity appalls Jessica; she leaves Nancy with a self-help bestseller. Turns out Jessica was supposed to meet a blind date at Waterloo Station, a date who would know her by the book she was holding.
Quicker than you can say “meet cute,” Jack (Simon Pegg), a 40-year divorcee has mistaken Nancy for Jessica and Nancy just kinda rolls with it.
Throw in some drinking, some bowling, Nancy’s parents’ (Ken Stott and Harriet Walter) 40th anniversary party and some of the tightest one-liners you will hear in a rom-com this year and you have one of the year’s most enjoyably effervescent comedies.
Director Ben Palmer keeps things moving (occasionally recalling Pegg’s previous movies with Edgar Wright, such is the film’s kinetics), jamming a staggering amount of plot (Will Nancy tell him the truth? Will she ever make it to her parents’ party?) and yakking (Nancy snapping “I’m your future” to some millennial ladies in the loo got the most laughs) into 88 minutes.
Bell is, as she has proven over and over, almost impossible to dislike and it is sweet and charming to see Pegg playing as close to a regular adult as he possibly can. Rory Kinnear does a uncomfortable and very funny turn as Sean, the high school stalker Nancy never knew she had, while Olivia Williams goes full-ice-queen as Jack’s ex.