Lake Bell

MAN UP

man-up-movie

2015 – When chronically single Nancy (Lake Bell) is mistaken for divorcee Jack’s (Simon Pegg) blind date, she decides to play along.  

If you’re looking for a clever, touching alternative to the execrable Silver Linings Playbook – a movie that doesn’t coddle its characters or talk down to its audience, a movie that’s dialogue-heavy but never feels tedious, a movie about real feelings and not trite Hollywood angst – look no further.

The real enjoyment of watching a romantic comedy is being able to picture yourself as one of the leads. If done properly, you should be thinking, “Hey, I’m not terrible-looking and have a sense of humor! If I played my cards right, this same thing could happen to me!” Man Up presents a dating scene that should be all too familiar to 30-somethings, a place where disappointment, divorce, and the inevitable cynicism are all too common.

Just about everyone can relate to Nancy’s situation in the opening scenes: forced into a disastrous blind date by a few well-intentioned friends. Her sister Elaine (Sharon Horgan) encourages her to keep her chin up and be impulsive. After an encounter with an obnoxiously chipper 20-something (Ophelia Lovibond), Nancy decides to do exactly that and allows an improbable string of circumstances to connect her with Jack. As you might expect, their date goes better than either of them could have expected… until an obsessed ex-neighbor and a vindictive ex-wife arrive on the scene.

The film takes place pretty close to “real time,” encompassing the events of one afternoon and evening. While a modest run-time helps keep the movie taut and crisp, it also helps itself by continually upping the stakes. While we enjoy watching the two leads move through their awkward first date conversations, we’re also kept in suspense by one sub-plot after another: will Jack find out that Nancy isn’t the “Jessica” he was expecting? Will creepy stalker Sean (Rory Kinnear) mess things up? Will Nancy make it in time for the speech at her parents’ 40th anniversary party?

Man Up is definitely written with a certain Generation X audience in mind – people in their 30s and early 40s who have been through the dating ringer, have faced ruined relationships and even failed marriages, and are yearning for the kind of connection their parents seemed to have. Millennials, a lot of whom live in broken households and think a “relationship” is three dates with someone you met on Tinder, won’t get it.

It also toes the line between a traditional romantic comedy and the more popular gross-out humor of today. There are a few scenes, mostly featuring the Sean character, that just don’t jive with the  overall tone of the movie. These slight inconsistencies are like the off notes that the doomed flutist was playing in Red Dragon in that they made me take notice, but fortunately not enough for me to want to butcher and eat someone.

Things recover quickly, though, thanks mainly to how charming Bell and Pegg are in their respective roles. There isn’t a lot of screaming and wailing, but there is a lot to appreciate about the acting. Paired with an overall positive tone and a strong cast of supporting characters, it’s enough to push Man Up into the must-see echelon on Netflix.

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IN A WORLD…

2013 – Vocal coach Carol Solomon (Lake Bell) lives in the shadow of her father Sam (Fred Melamed), Hollywood’s go-to movie trailer voice, as she tries to break into the field.

I liked this movie. What’s wrong with me? I need to find one I hate, STAT.

Sort of an “awkward comedy” (the kind where you grit your teeth and wince instead of laugh out loud), sort of a drama, In A World… has no right to be as good as it is. The central drama is the race to get movie trailer voice-over jobs; there are a ton of characters; it’s one of those “written, directed, and starring” things that are usually so insufferable. But writer, director, and star Lake Bell manages to establish a convincing world populated by unique, engaging characters, creating a true Netflix gem.

You know the “in a world” guy, right? Don LaFontaine was basically the God of movie trailers, and his trademark phrase, “In a world where…” was used so often that it’s become a cliché. In a World… takes that obscure bit of pop culture trivia and makes it the premise of the movie: they’re going revive that phrase in the trailers for an upcoming Hunger Games-esque “quadrilogy,” and competition for the voice-over is going to be fierce.

Reigning champ Sam Sotto claims he doesn’t want the job. He’s sponsoring up-and-comer Gustav Warner (Ken Marino). Sam’s daughter Carol has always dreamed of a job like this, but is trapped by the voice-over industry’s glass ceiling for women – and also just accidentally slept with Gustav at a party. Meanwhile, she has to deal her father’s young new wife Jamie (Alexandra Holden), awkward co-worker Louis (Demetri Martin), and sister Dani’s (Michaela Watkins) troubled marriage with Moe (Rob Corddry). We’ve only got 90 minutes for all this. Sheesh.

Although it seems to be Bell’s first full-length screenplay, the movie doesn’t fritter away any time. The plots are woven together so that every scene contributes to the overall dramatic momentum. With so many names and relationships and so little time, it’s a credit to the movie that I only lost a few here and there (I didn’t realize Dani was Carol’s sister until halfway through).

It’s not perfect; some of the gags are definitely more funny in theory than in practice. One sub-plot – Moe’s seeming crush on his flirty English neighbor – seems to vanish without a trace. Otherwise, this movie serves as a wonderful reminder of just how much you can do with an hour and a half.

The film’s signature achievement is that it made me really care about the jerk from Hot Tub Time Machine. Beyond that, In a World… gives us some good old-fashioned heart-warming reasons to stay engaged. A daughter secretly wishes to make her father proud; a nerd works up the courage to ask out his crush; a long-time couple struggles in the face of suspected infidelity.

Heartily recommended. Oh, and Eva Longoria appears for two minutes. What was she famous for again?