Quid Pro Quo
The title of Ben Palmer’s refreshing rom com reflects the reality that for many single women the days your suitors would line up and you’d just pick one, assuming those days weren’t the stuff of literary fantasy, are long gone. It’s men that traditionally had to whore themselves around, trying to impress would-be bedmates, but in this modern atomised world in which we’re all alone and reliant on the indignity of online dating and unreliability of chance to meet our companionship needs, the struggle’s greater while the picture’s crowded out with complications.
Lake Bell’s Nancy, sporting an exemplary English accent, is a realistic and therefore tragically funny singleton. She’s been alone a long time, has succumb to bottomless introspection and self-pity, and is subject to the indignities lonely thirtysomethings come to know like old friends – invites to smug pals’ engagement parties and having to listen to nonsense and shit as the self-same undeserving couploids try to palm you off on their single friends based on the spurious assumption that all singletons, by virtue of being alone, are less discriminating and nuanced than themselves, and are reducible to their relationship status, so have the only thing in common with their other single friends that matters.
Long form loneliness has robbed Nancy of her youthful pep. She’s complicated, sharp but uncomfortable in her own skin. Her mantras, God awful notes to self like “be more deviant” reflect a woman who’s become so risk averse that the Cat Lady Society have already conferred life membership. Tess Morris’s script, that acutely understands the condition of these lost souls, crushed by the tyranny of a culture that treats anyone who isn’t in a relationship like a leper, knows that the Nancys of the world will never meet the right person if their idiot friends have anything to do with it. Thus she contrives a nice twist on formula that sees Bell’s belle mistook for Simon Pegg’s blind date en route to her parent’s 40th anniversary party. Pegg’s Jack, who’s nervous and doesn’t initially let her get a word in edgeways, talks long enough to establish a shared love of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and a humourous bent. It’s enough for Nancy, drinking in the last chance saloon, to take a chance and pose as Jessica, the twentysomething triathlete Pegg was expecting.
Wisely, Ben Palmer doesn’t draw out the misunderstanding for too long. In a mark of the good judgement on display in all quarters, this isn’t a comedy of errors in farcical mode. The introduction of the movie’s only misstep, Nancy’s overwrought and ultimately trying stalker, played by a hyperactive Rory Kinnear, disentangles the mistake, as Palmer and Morris understand that only by putting the couple into conflict and dropping the first date performance, can they reveal their true characters to one another and bond. This is the movie’s other canny truth, that dating’s a pretty useless mechanism for garnering compatibility, as people are seldom themselves. Nancy and Jack are forced to drop all pretences – Jack the fuck up, heartbroken by his cheating ex-wife, Nancy the one time confident kook who’s discovered that edge alienates the bulk of plodding, mainstream maledom. The result’s a film that’s warm and funny, but more importantly well observed.
We’ve seen a million rom coms with each character little better than a gender stereotype. Man Up’s too shrewd for that nonsense, instead giving us two paid up members of the human race, each vulnerable in their way and with plenty of overlapping emotional and psychological baggage. The message, one we can all get behind, doubles as the truth, namely that good partners are sourced from reality, not fantasy, and must be dimensional beings, not a set of idealised traits.
Credit must also go to Tess Morris for her well-structured script, boasting plenty of neat comic setups that pay off nicely. It’s a screenplay complimented by Ben Palmer’s direction that adds a little visual flamboyance. All in all, sweet, witty, life-affirming stuff.