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Netflix’s new movie Set It Up is being touted as the return of the rom-com, though it’s not like we’ve really been suffering from a dearth (see: How to Be Single, Sleeping With Other People, Home Again, Trainwreck and several others in the past few years).
But the film does indeed feel like a return — perhaps more accurately a return to form — and it’s because Set It Up, directed by Claire Scanlon (whose TV directorial work includes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and written by Katie Silberman, so unabashedly follows the formula of the genre’s contemporary hey-day. This latest iteration involves that bickering-friends-turned-lovers trope familiar from Meg Ryan movies (You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally); the matchmaking element from Clueless and The Parent Trap; and a lovably nerdy female protagonist reminiscent of Josie Geller (Never Been Kissed) and Laney Boggs (She’s All That).
While so many recent renditions of the rom-com have tried to upgrade the genre — usually by going the raunchy route — Set It Up feels so purposefully classic and familiar that it plays right into that nostalgic feel-good spot.
But this walk down memory lane is a bit more 2018-conscious, as illustrated by the casting of Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu as bosses — roles typically given to white actors. Their love story is one part of the romantic romp, but the orchestrators behind their not-so-organic “meet-cute,” Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), form the real heart of the story. They’re two overworked and underpaid assistants working for big-time ESPN reporter Kirsten (Liu) and top-dog businessman Rick (Diggs), respectively.
Though they belong in different industries, they happen to all share the same building, and after one fateful late night at the office, the two assistants meet, get into a fight, then concoct a plan to set up their bosses. (Funnily enough, when one of the characters literally says “set it up” in the movie, it does not refer to this setup.) The two assistants reason that if their bosses are preoccupied with each other (read: getting laid), they’ll be way easier on their employees, giving them more free time to pursue their own dreams — or just take a much-needed nap.
Harper wants to be a writer herself, but is frustrated by her stunted ambition and the lack of breathing room from her demanding job; her hectic schedule has also prevented her from getting a date in years. Charlie, on the other hand, has his eyes on a promotion that he believes is just around the corner, in part to please his materialistic, status-chasing girlfriend (Joan Smalls). They come into the plan with high expectations, but what they didn’t expect was their mutual desire to spend more time with each other — and not just while tricking their bosses.
The Parent Trap-like plan produces some of the film’s funniest scenes, including an elevator shutdown coordinated by Harper and Charlie with the help of a maintenance worker (a hilarious cameo from Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess). Then there’s a forced kiss-cam situation at a baseball game that accelerates their first smooch.
Silberman’s script is so jam-packed with jokes that the hilarity of the characters’ banter — especially between the motor-mouthed Deutch and the eye-rolling Powell — will get you on a romantic high. Diggs and Liu are given more outlandish roles — the former is a laptop-thrower, the latter is described as the spawn of Miss Piggy and Voldemort but with low blood sugar — so there’s a bit of whiplash when we’re given a glimpse into their empathetic sides, but these two are exhilarating to watch nonetheless.
Set It Up reaches so far for the highs that it neglects some of the potentially meatier plotlines and backstories. What do Harper and Charlie’s situations say about the millennial work culture, for instance? Then there’s the gay BFF character to Charlie, but with the unfortunate casting of Pete Davidson (who is neither funny nor charismatic here), this addition feels like a misstep for a movie that has such good representation.
Set It Up is mostly predictable in the best sense: There’s timeless enjoyment in watching two people butt heads with each other and then eventually fall in love. If big studios aren’t turning out romantic comedies like they used to, perhaps original content streaming services like Netflix will prove to be the saving grace for a particular category of movies people crave — even if they require a little 21st century facelift.
Production company: Treehouse Pictures
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Joan Smalls, Meredith Hagner, Pete Davidson
Director: Claire Scanlon
Screenwriters: Katie Silberman
Producers: Juliet Berman, Carrie Fix, Justin Nappi, Katie Silberman
Director of photography: Matthew Clark
Production designer: Jane Musky
Costume designer: Rebecca Hofherr
Editors: Wendy Greene, Bricmont
Composer: Laura Karpman