‘Set It Up’ brings life to a dead genre
Courtney Becker | Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Everyone knows the classic and often poorly done romantic comedy tropes — meet-cutes, the quirky best friends, memorable declarations of love, etc. But with its original movie “Set It Up,” Netflix injected new life into a stale genre and produced one of the best films of the summer.
With a stellar cast and a refreshing sense of self-awareness, “Set It Up” stays true to the most enjoyable parts of rom-coms without sinking too far into schmaltz. Instead, the movie places multi-dimensional female characters front and center while still providing some swoon-worthy moments.
The movie focuses on Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), two overworked assistants who indulge their bosses’ (Lucy Liu’s Kirsten and Taye Diggs’ Rick, respectively) every whim. Fed up with their lack of free time, the two decide to set up Kirsten and Rick. Anyone who’s ever seen a rom-com knows where Harper and Charlie’s relationship ends up, but the way they get there is entertaining and original throughout the movie’s 100-minute run time.
Deutch is the movie’s standout and biggest strength. She is funny and charming as Harper, an aspiring sports journalist, rapidly delivering truths like “guys like girls who like guys who like sports” in response to Charlie’s oblivious comments about women. But Powell is endearing enough as Charlie that his bravado often comes across as a front he puts on to meet society’s standards of male success. The chemistry between the two is so strong that rooting for Harper and Charlie is never difficult.
Their roles as struggling assistants gears the movie toward a post-college audience, but the underlying realism of the characters still makes it accessible to viewers who haven’t yet entered the workforce. It also allows “Set It Up” to avoid cookie-cutter villain roles. Diggs’ Rick is the one who comes closest to the trope, but his performance humanizes the character enough to redeem him.
Aside from the main couple, the strongest relationship in the movie is the one between Harper and Kirsten. Seeing respect between two intelligent, ambitious women in the workplace is rare for a rom-com, and “Set It Up” knocks it out of the park. Liu and the writers take a character that could come off as stereotypical (Kirsten’s request for Harper to “play a lullaby or something, then just slowly increase the volume” to wake her up from a nap is one of the most ridiculous assistant tasks of the movie) and give her enough depth to not tag Kirsten with the “overbearing female boss” label. She’s fought her way to the top of one of the hardest industries for women, and Harper can’t help but admire her.
Beyond this, “Set It Up” smashes the Bechdel test all around. Even a scene between Harper and her roommate that could easily become about Charlie and Harper’s feelings for him remains focused on Harper and her career. Unlike the female leads in so many rom-coms, Harper doesn’t need Charlie to fulfill her.
Of course, not all the characters are as fully fleshed-out as the main four. Charlie’s roommate (Pete Davidson playing a version of Pete Davidson that happens to be gay) and his model girlfriend (Joan Smalls) are basically there to be the best friend who sees what the main character doesn’t and the horrible significant other, respectively. Both characters deliver some comedic relief, but neither one adds much more than a few laughs to the movie. And “Set It Up” pushes the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief to its limits with Kirsten’s career — she made a name for herself as a reporter at ESPN, then got rich by leaving and founding her own sports news Web site in New York City, which only seems plausible if you don’t think about it too much.
Still, “Set It Up” largely avoids the eye-roll-inducing tendencies of modern rom-coms and delivers a fun, emotionally resonant love story. Not only will fans of these types of movies be satisfied, but anyone who thought great rom-coms were dead should definitely give this one a shot. Netflix has certainly set the genre up for quite the revival.