There's a propensity in this day and age to look at the "rom-com" with a touch of bile. Our culture has come to react negatively to the genre, preferring the cynical rejection thereof as opposed to the embrace of its romantic, perhaps idealistic, principles. In fact, even those who set out to make rom-coms seem to abide by this new league of cynicism. So many of the variations on the tradition that we see today are done with a touch of irony, self-deprecation, or subversion. Many, but not all. At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, writer Tess Morris and director Ben Palmer released Man Up , a romantic comedy that feels as whimsical and cheeky as the sort that we might have seen hit theaters 15 or 20 years ago. Starring Lake Bell (with a lovely British accent) and Simon Pegg (who is actually British), the film is as happy to be wacky as it is to be genuinely sweet.
I got a chance to talk to screenwriter Morris, director Palmer, and star Bell — who you might know from Childrens Hospital, How to Make It in America, or her 2013 comedy In a World... — about their new film, and what it might mean to be an "old-fashioned rom-com" in an age where the species is all but extinct. One of the best things about Man Up is that it distinguishes itself from many other contemporary rom-coms with a full-fledged adoration for the genre — and it's this characteristic that first attracted Bell to the project. "It wasn’t afraid of latching onto tropes that really work, or that are satisfying, or generous in spirit, versus winking at it or poking fun, or commenting on itself in a way that is negative," she said of the project. "Or even the default of, like, 'We’re the anti-romantic comedy.'"
As it turns out Morris has a particular vitriol for that term: "When people say 'anti-rom-com,' I get quite annoyed because I think, 'You don’t say ‘anti-thriller,’ and you don’t say ‘anti-horror. What is it about people that makes them [act like it’s] a pejorative term?"
As for why rom-coms get such a bad rap, Morris thinks it might have to do with a latent chauvinism in contemporary culture. "Because it’s female-centric," she says. "Like, for me, Sideways is completely a romantic comedy. But it’s about two men. A lot of my male friends say, 'I love Sideways.' Well, that’s a romantic comedy!"
As far as Bell is concerned, "feel good" movies like the archetypal romantic comedy are an important escape for today's audiences. "There’s so much f**king horrible s**t in the world. It’s a dark place, for all intents and purposes, that there’s something nice about coming into a space — I’m very romantic when it comes to watching movies — I like going to the cinema, being in a space, being enveloped in this imaginary world."
Palmer recalls an audience member in an early Man Up screening who had this sort of experience with the film: "Oh, he had the perfect reaction! That’s when we had the first screening. And we left, and I was standing outside. And he grabbed me by my shoulders and said, 'I f**king loved your film! I’m going to go out there and I’m going to get myself a girlfriend! Right now!' And then he turned, and he was almost running!"
As it turns out, Palmer wasn't quite as well-versed in rom-coms as his screenwriter might have hoped. As such, he was given a little bit of homework. Morris says, "I remember [Ben] said to me, 'Which ones should I watch?' And I made a big long list, because I was worried. 'What if he hasn’t seen that and he’s directing my film?'" The pair went on to recall all of Palmer's genre blind spots.
"I think the main one [Ben] hadn’t seen [was] Moonstruck," says Morris. "Then there was stuff like Crazy, Stupid, Love. We ended up getting [Andrew Dunn] for our D.O.P., the guy who shot Crazy, Stupid, Love. Very handy. We wanted it to look like Crazy, Stupid, Love, so our producer said, 'Well, why don’t we just get the guy who lit Crazy, Stupid, Love?' Then he agreed to do it."
She continued: "As Good as It Gets was on there. Silver Linings Playbook I don’t think [Ben] had seen. That was a big one because it had that screwball element, which, to me, was important in this as well."
As good a resource as old rom-coms may be, Morris lamented many filmmaker's attempts at mimicry over reinvention. "Ever since When Harry Met Sally came out," she says, "everyone’s been trying to remake that film. But it was made at such a specific time by two such specific people. Four specific people if you’re going to include the actors."
Bell's Man Up character isn't the usual pristine heroine you see in most contemporary rom-coms. Of the central pair, she's the kooky, jaded, down-and-dirty one who drags straight man Pegg through the muck of her neuroses. As Morris puts it, "She's the Woody Allen, basically."
It was this oddball demeanor that made the character of Nancy so appealing to Bell in the first place. "I like characters that, in other films, would be the supporting characters," Bell says. "But in this film, this is their story. In general. Even in In a World…, I think Carol would be a peripheral character. And then they’ve been upgraded to be like, 'Well, what’s going on in their life?' And I feel like Man Up certainly has that. Maybe in another film I’d be the kooky best friend of another…blonde woman."
Nevertheless, as cynical as Man Up's leading lady may be, its heart is aligned with the romance of Pegg's idealistic character. For writer Morris, who herself identifies as a cynic, this seems to have been a bit of a challenge to bring to life. "I am quite a realist, and probably more cynical than most women. I don’t necessarily want someone to run to 'Here I Go Again' by Whitesnake. But then I sort of do as well," she says.
"Over the course of the film, Nancy becomes romantic, because Jack shows her, and he gives her the big speech," Morris continues. "We love the trope of someone running to get to someone — and I added the kids chasing with him, etcetera, etcetera, and someone was like, 'Why would a bunch of kids run off with him?' Because it’s a film! — But I love it when Harry runs to Sally, and I do that, but make it my own. So it is romantic, but it’s Nancy’s kind of romantic."
A big part of nailing this marriage of traditional romance and modern realism was the music. Man Up boasts an unusual selection of tunes for a romantic comedy.
"['Where Is My Mind' by The Pixies] was the first track we spotted," Palmer says. "When you actually put more conventional music on there, it felt quite heavy-handed in trying to lead the audience and telling them how to feel. Ultimately what we wanted to do was let the dialogue and the characters do that. It was also bringing it back to now. This is a contemporary love story, at the end of the day. So we set off on that track, and that was the first piece of music."
He continues, "Really, that’s one of my favorite scenes. It’s a heartfelt scene, but we wanted to do it in sort of a counterintuitive way. And that informed the rest of the score. It’s not until the finale that we have much more minimalist, stripped-back music, because Simon and Lake’s performances are so outstanding. You don’t need to be told in a heavy-handed, schmaltzy way how you need to feel. By the time you get to the end of the film, you’ve earned your stripes."
Of course, those stripes give way to an epic climax played to "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake. That seems to have been a dealbreaker for Morris: "We always had 'Here I Go Again' in the script. We had to — can we say this? — we had to get permission from David Coverdale from Whitesnake," Morris says. "We had it in the script, and we didn’t think, 'Oh, can we actually use it?; He didn’t say no, but we just had to get permission. So Simon wrote a very funny letter saying, 'Please? Can we?' And he was like, 'Yeah, of course you can use my song!' We should get him for the premiere. David Coverdale from Whitesnake. Can you imagine?"
Images: Saban Films (8)