Ben Palmer’s first proper foray into cinematic glory post-The Inbetweeners takes a typical story about a disillusioned mid-30s woman, Nancy Patterson (Lake Bell, sporting a believable British accent), and transforms it into a message about perception, and the positive (of often negative) effects it can have on a potential relationship.
After Nancy reluctantly attends the wedding of friends who want to set her up with another single thirty-something, she finds herself wishing she had continued to stay in her hotel room watching The Silence of the Lambs. Her inability to seamlessly communicate with another man without coming across as awkward/not dainty enough for your average bloke makes her want to give up the whole agonizing ordeal of “putting herself out there.”
On the train back from the wedding, Nancy prepares (as best as she haphazardly can) her speech for her parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary party, which is to take place that evening. Unfortunately, a plucky 24-year-old named Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) overhears her jaded phone conversation with her sister about blind dates and decides to impose her opinions with a self-help book she’s reading called Six Billion People and You that, she says, proves blind dates are effective and that she’s about to go on one after she gets off the train (he will, of course, recognize her by the book she’s carrying). Irked to no end by Jessica’s unfettered optimism thanks, in large part, to her youth, Nancy tells her to stop talking and proceeds to take a nap. When she awakens, she finds Jessica has left the book in front of her with a Post-It pointing to a chapter on how negativity affects everyone around you. Infuriated, Nancy runs after her to try to give the book back.
As fate (or blind chance) would have it, she loses sight of her while chasing her and stops underneath a clock where an eager 40-year-old divorcé named Jack (Simon Pegg, branching out a bit more from his purely laddish films) approaches her and starts blathering about being her date. Not sure what to do at first, Nancy is hooked when Jack quotes The Silence of the Lambs. From there, she tries to deflect any questions relating to information he received about Jessica from their mutual friend. And it seems, for a time, that this date couldn’t possibly be more perfect. Jack takes her to one of his favorite bars, which Nancy later finds out he only did in the hopes of flaunting her in front of his ex, Hilary (Olivia Williams). When he starts to notice some obvious discrepancies in who she might be (e.g. exchanging notebooks to go over the questions they were supposed to have answered in Six Billion People and You), he overlooks them, perhaps too interested in her to care.
They continue their date at a bowling alley where Nancy has the misfortune of running into one of her old high school classmates, Sean (Rory Kinnear), who was (and is) obsessed with her. When he overhears Jack calling her Jessica, he uses her desperation to continue her lie by demanding that she at least kisses him. Repulsed, she goes to the bathroom where Sean has disrobed and is waiting for her. Just as she’s about to make good on her end of the bargain, Jack walks in on them, forcing Nancy to confess the truth about her true identity and why she was flaccidly trying to kiss Sean.
Infuriated, Jack goes off on her for being a lying, predatory singleton with no respect for romance. Well-versed in insults, Nancy gives it right back to him, calling him a sad divorcé who just wants to get his midlife crisis over with by obsessing over dating a 24-year-old. And yet, the two are still bound to one another when they realize Jack has left his “man bag” at the bar containing Nancy’s notebook with her parents’ anniversary speech in it.
When they arrive back at the bar, Jack’s ex is there, as it’s her regular watering hole as well. On to his tricks, Nancy agrees to act like his “real” date because as he points out, “You owe me one.” Their chemistry during this so-called fake display can’t be denied, but even when it’s clear that they’re truly interested in one another, Jack still makes the foul mistake of wanting to meet up with Jessica when she tells him there must have been a misunderstanding. This leaves Nancy, for a time, doubtful in the possibility of love, yet eventually, and rightly, hopeful.
Tess Morris’ first solo screenwriting effort highlights the primary problem of a woman in her mid-30s: she isn’t given a fair chance once a man becomes aware of her age and is often written off for not being “vibrant” enough in personality. But the best part about females in this age bracket is how little they give a fuck. They’ll say it like it is, knowing full well it’s better to speak honestly than spout some self-help bullshit. Man Up is, then, a Bridget Jones’ Diary of the time, with even less sugar coating due perhaps to Colin Firth’s absence.