Man Up is a breezy London-set romantic comedy starring Simon Pegg and Lake Bell. If you like a good rom-com it’s worth eighty-eight minutes of your time, if only for Bell who is quite wonderful in the film: funny, charismatic, engaging, and sporting a flawless London accent (she’s a New Yorker) playing thirty-four-year-old singleton Nancy. Simon Pegg is excellent too as fortysomething newly-divorced Jack. From a screenwriting point of view (it’s written by Tess Morris) there’s a huge amount that really works. It’s very funny in places, well written and deftly structured. It’s available On Demand in the UK (I caught it on Virgin) and also out on DVD and Blu-ray. The film is released in the US on 13 November 2015.
Unfortunately it does have one central problem that, to be fair, as a romantic comedy it really can’t escape: it’s a romantic comedy. The film got me thinking: is this genre fundamentally flawed? Do all rom-coms have an underlying thematic defect which means they are built to fail?
I came across this interview with Simon Pegg and Tess Morris. There’s a particularly interesting section where they talk about the poor reputation of romantic comedies:
“The number of times I get into conversations with people where they’re dismissive of romantic comedy, which makes me so furious because you don’t dismiss all thrillers, you don’t dismiss all horrors,” says Morris with visible exasperation.
“It’s like the idea of the rom-com has become slightly tarnished by some films,” adds Pegg. “There’s been a slew of films that haven’t done that particular term or genre proud. And people are starting to expect that.”
I wonder if people are generally dismissive of romantic comedies for good reason: perhaps there’s a built-in thematic flaw which permeates the genre. All rom-coms basically ask the same thematic question: is it possible to find “The One”? And the answer is usually: “Yes!”
But for most of us, The One is total bullcrap, and this is why the genre invariably fails its audience. Cynical? Maybe so. But hear me out …
The ideal of The One goes something like this: out there somewhere is our One perfect partner, and throughout our adult lives we should be searching for them. If and when we find them via some serendipitous cute-meet, we start dating, eventually “get serious”, maybe move in together. Marriage follows then inevitably kids. Because we have found The One this relationship will continue, even if there are bumps along the way, until “death us do part”. And by definition there can only be one “One”.
The basic plot of Man Up is as follows: singleton Nancy is thirty-four and exhausted by endless fruitless setups by her friends (searching for The One, obvs). She is travelling to London to celebrate her parents’ forty-year wedding anniversary, when she runs into a fortysomething recent divorcee, Jack, who mistakes her for his twenty-four year-old blind date. Nancy impulsively decides to pretend to be his date, and a day/night of romantic comedy chaos ensues. It’s hardly a major spoiler if I tell you that Jack and Nancy end up together at the end.
Examples of The One abound: at the beginning, Nancy is at a horrendous Hawaiian-themed wedding party out in the country. Despite you wanting to punch the newly married couple into oblivion, they are an example of two people who have supposedly found The One and are therefore deliriously happy. They try to set Nancy up with some sallow-faced beta male at the party, who is plainly not The One for her. We also see Nancy speaking to her elder sister Elaine on the phone. Her sister has a wonderful partner too, as she has also found The One.
After the wedding, Nancy is returning to London for her parents’ wedding anniversary party. Her parents are a comfortably happy couple in the twilight of their years that plainly did find The One and managed to stay together, presumably till death them do part. Their relationship proves it is indeed possible to find The One and stay together for life – Nancy’s parents have been married for forty years, are happy and still very much in love.
So this is what we should all aspire to – and why the hell not? But how many of us can expect to achieve the same? And – more importantly – if we don’t, if we have previous relationships that have ultimately ended, should these always be simplistically dismissed as failures? Man Up does this too, in some particularly overt ways.
First let’s go to the climax of the film. Jack gets to make the big traditional rom-Richard-com-Curtis declaration of love speech to Nancy:
“If you hadn’t have pretended to be my date today, my day would’ve been utterly rubbish … and so quite possibly would have been the rest of my life … Nancy, you said I was an emotional jigsaw, and I should look for the blue bits. I think you might be the blue bits.”
So Jack thinks he may have found The One (they’ve only known each other for around ten hours and haven’t actually had sex at this point, but what the hell). Just to ram the point home, Jack ends his speech with a pithy quote from the self-help book that is key to their initial mistaken identity meet:
“Fuck the past.”
Fuck the past: those past relationships ended/failed so therefore weren’t The One meaning they were mistakes that should be stricken from the record. Pretty much all romantic comedies fall into this “fuck the past” trap. Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with this? And is it why the traditional rom-com just doesn’t work as a genre? Because life for most of us is way more complex.
So, how does Man Up address “the past” for Jack? Via a subplot about Jack and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Hilary played by Olivia Williams. Jack first talks about his ex at the beginning of his date with Nancy:
“Affairs, eh? Who’d have ‘em? They would … this is my first real date since the D word … I’m not going to let a failed marriage put me off relationships for good.”
So Jack’s ex is a cheater who had an affair and destroyed their marriage. He hates her and we should hate her too. Mid-way through the film Jack and Nancy actually “bump into” Hilary and her new merchant banker/wanker partner Ed (a contrivance engineered by Jack to rub his young and attractive date in his ex-wife’s face). It’s here that the film veers down an unpleasant path. The problem is the character of Hilary. Everyone about her seems truly awful – she’s the pantomime villain of exes. Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing even hinted at to show us why Jack and his ex were ever together. I mean, who would go near this horrible woman?
And yet … a few minutes later Jack is crying in the gents:
“I’ve got to move on, y’know? She’s out there, she’s happy, she’s getting on with her life, and I’m just holding on.”
We’re never told how long Jack and Hilary were together; let’s estimate eight to ten years at least? Isn’t that some kind of achievement that should be celebrated instead of dismissed as one massive mistake: “fuck the past”. He’s plainly truly upset that they’ve broken up. So this horrible, cruel ex-wife was surely at one time The One for Jack? It just didn’t turn out to be “until death do us part”, and is that such a bad thing? However, from the character’s portrayal in Man Up, everything about his ex-wife seems to indicate their divorce was the best thing that ever happened to him … yet he’s crying in the gents about it mid-way through a date. For me, this just doesn’t work.
At the same point in the film Nancy reveals more about her longest previous relationship:
“I had six years with the supposed love of my life, when out of the blue he ended it and then he said he wanted to go to China to find himself, and then he found himself shacked up in Shepherd’s Bush with some other girl like six months later.”
So during her twenties Nancy had a six-year relationship with someone she described as the “supposed love of my life”. Presumably that relationship was a pretty good one, at least until it ended? She’s obviously still hurting and not quite “over it” four years later. But no, this is a rom-com so all previous relationships, no matter how long, because they at some pointed ENDED must therefore be FAILURES.
Unfortunately every single romantic comedy seems to have this insidious little axiom at its heart. And for me, that’s why rom-coms never quite work. They are built on a fantasy of The One that that most of us will never attain. But that’s okay.
Nowadays we can except to live well into our eighties. That’s an adult life span of sixty years or more. Surely this ideal of The One – a relationship that lasts for most if not all our adult lives, is something that only happens to a fairly small minority? Again, you might call me cynical, but the evidence of most relationships I see around me points exactly to this.
In practice most of us will have more than one significant, long-term relationship during our time on earth. We might well even be married more than once. At the time each relationship could be seen as “The One”, surely? So maybe there’s not a “One” but a Two, Three, a Four? If you get married in the UK or the USA, you have between a forty and fifty per cent chance of that marriage ending in divorce. So logically half of us will be on at least a Two?
Surely spending ten whole years with someone is an achievement rather than a failure, even if that relationship turns out to be finite? So there might be different Ones at different stages in your life. Most relationships that we have during our lives can and will be wonderful – at least for some of their duration – but some or even all will be finite. This is not a bad thing.
I guess you could argue that a romantic comedy doesn’t represent the real world, it’s a fantasy, an ideal – and maybe that’s okay too. When it comes down to it, I guess, isn’t the romantic comedy all about hope? As Simon Pegg says in the same interview: “A romantic comedy’s such an aspirational thing in that it tells you that love is possible.”
Is it really possible to find The One? Maybe so. I’d agree it’s possible to find love. But for most of us, the journey of life and love will be a little more convoluted. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll find our One more than once. For me that sounds like a pretty good deal, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for Jack and Nancy.