The term “Idiot Plot” was coined by British writer James Blish, but Roger Ebert popularized it, dropping it into many reviews and defining it thus: “Any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all the characters were not idiots.” Over time, that definition would evolve into a specific complaint against plots “where the problems could be cleared up with a few words, if everyone in the plot were not an idiot,” resulting in movies that are “more like a party game where you lose if you say the secret word.” I think a lot about the movies Ebert would’ve liked, and it seems safe to bet he would’ve enjoyed Ben Palmer’s Man Up — if for no other reason, then for the scene about a half hour in, when our heroine owns up to the deception she’s spent the first act of the movie pulling off. She clears it up in a few words. And then the movie deals with that.
Her name is Nancy (Lake Bell), and she’s spent the past couple of hours in the company of Jack (Simon Pegg), a nice guy who mistook her for his blind date. After going along with the notion that she’s a 24-year-old triathlete, Nancy finally finds herself in a situation she can’t cover, so she comes clean. It’s a scene that would normally come about an hour later in a mistaken identity-based romantic comedy, long after all credibility was shattered, and is a clear indication that they’re up to something special here.
Pegg felt the same way when he first read Tess Morris’ screenplay. “I liked the way that the MacGuffin, as it were, was sort of tossed out quite quickly,” Pegg says. “And the whole thing became this interesting way of having to keep them together because, of course, as soon as you throw the conceit out there, that he thinks she’s someone else, then why would they stay together?” Bell agrees, noting that the portion of the film spent on the mistaken identity also allows them to have their cake and eat it too: “The idea that we get to do the mistaken identity thing and then also get to really make a meal of the aftermath of that, instead of that being abbreviated and not satisfyingly wrapped up, I think it’s really wise and thorough.”
And that notion of burning down the gimmick isn’t the only thing that sets Man Up apart from the typical rom-com. It’s a very funny movie, and a sweet one, but not at the cost of genuine emotion; both Bell and Pegg have key beats, around the halfway point, where some comic actors would’ve gone for the laugh, yet they play them entirely straight. “I have to attribute that to [director] Ben Palmer,” Bell says, who “encouraged us to play things very, very real. And I think that always makes for good comedy — the more you lean into the honest nature of circumstances, that’s what deposits you into caring. And if you care, then you can laugh harder.”
Pegg concurs. “That’s always been a mantra for myself when I work with Edgar Wright, when we write comedies,” he says. “If a comedy has no story or there’s no truth to it, then it exists purely from joke to joke — and every time a joke fails, the whole film crumbles with it. So it’s always important to underpin comedy with truth and reality, and know when to switch the comedy off and be completely serious, because you have to be about color and difference. If it’s all one-note, it’s hard to laugh, even if it’s just 88 minutes. It’s hard to stay there with a grin on your face. Life isn’t like that.”
And the question of reality, Pegg notes, may have something to do with the fact that romantic comedy has lost the ubiquity it had 20 or even ten years ago. “We went through a period of deep superficiality, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron there,” he laughs. “I think there was a point where there was sort of rush on them and they started to become about people for whom you had zero concern or affection. Often they would be very beautiful, well-adjusted, handsome, beautiful people pretending to be dysfunctional — and really, no one was buying it. They weren’t about ordinary people. They were about exceptional Hollywood people, or just overly good-looking middle-class people who [make] you think, Aww, I don’t give a shit about you. And I think that was the problem; they stop being about love and start being about something a little more superficial, and they got tiring and tiresome.”
Which is not to say that Man Up is entirely gritty and gloss-free; one of its most memorable sequences finds the duo on the dance floor, conducting an argument about Pegg’s failed marriage in the midst of an impressively choreographed dance-off to Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” “It was just this idea that Tess had, that we all have a dance routine somewhere that we learned unconsciously as youngsters in the discos,” Pegg says, “and that Jack and Nancy, whilst they’re arguing, find this odd synchronization, which kind of hints at the fact that they are very much in tune with each other. It is one of those ‘that wouldn’t happen’ moments, but it worked figuratively in the movie as a way of saying ‘Look, they’re fighting and they’re arguing, but they’re totally in tune with each other.’”
The bit was choreographed by Litza Bixler (“She did all the zombie moves in Shaun of the Dead,” Pegg says), and with her, they “started out getting really good and then sort of unwound a little bit, so it looked a little bit more made up. But yeah, there was a moment when we could have taken it on to Broadway, I’m sure.” Bell agrees, but with one caveat: “I gotta be honest, I’m kind of sick of that song. I hate to say it. I love ‘The Reflex,’ but after you do a movie with any sort of choreography, the song that you hear on playback about 6000 times, you get over it.”
Man Up is out Friday in limited release, and becomes available on demand (and in additional markets) November 20.