These are dark times — super dark times. What everybody needs right now is an escape… something sugary-sweet and life-affirming to focus on for 90 minutes until the next terrible thing rolls around.
Sure, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has the popcorn thrills covered and Solo: A Star Wars Story caters to a certain sect that will take anything when the “Lucasfilm” logo flashes up at the beginning. But nothing compares to a good old fashioned rom com.
One would be forgiven for thinking the humble romantic comedy was dead and buried. This in spite of the fact the last few years have gifted long-time fans the likes of What If, The Big Sick and Man Up — three instant all-timers. However, even keeping those wonderful films in mind, Netflix’s Set It Up is a game-changer.
Reuniting Everybody Wants Some!! co-stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, for a fun little round of setting people up that they don’t realize is actually working on them simultaneously, the flick is sunny, hopeful and joyous. Also, in keeping with the great Nancy Meyers/Nora Ephron tradition, it’s both written and directed by women.
Deutch is Harper, a P.A. burning the candle at both ends for her demanding boss, played by Lucy Liu. In a neat twist that could only have come from the mind of a woman, Liu plays the ball-breaking editor of an online sports magazine. Harper, meanwhile, is dying to be a sports writer herself, but she has no time to actually write.
Powell’s Charlie, on the other hand, works on a different floor in the same colossal building for suave businessman Taye Diggs. Although he’s not falling apart at the seams like Harper, Charlie is as tightly buttoned up as his stylish suits. He rarely makes plans outside of work, and his girlfriend is barely aware he’s alive.
After a meet-cute involving a stolen pickle (not a euphemism), Harper badgers Charlie into helping her set up their two workaholic bosses. She reasons that, if they’re busy courting each other and (hopefully) falling in love, they won’t have as much time to make their assistants’ lives hell.
It’s a great setup, one that both pays homage to generally accepted rom com conventions (something Set It Up frequently does with immense charm) while also updating them for a modern audience.
Although Charlie and Harper are clearly both sweet, attractive, young people, they’re not destined for each other from the beginning. Nor is either desperately searching for The One. They connect because they’re both career hyper-focused, both kind, both good people.
Likewise, Liu’s highly-strung editor and Diggs’ computer-destroying capitalist is hardly a match made in heaven either. The fun comes from watching Harper and Charlie dodge being caught pulling the strings, rather than wondering whether their bosses will end up making it work.
Liu and Diggs are clearly having a ball with their respective characters, her delivering life-ruining put-downs with bite, while also hinting at a lifetime of struggling against the misogyny in her chosen industry, while he brings as much energy to his quieter, more intense moments as his freakouts.
The focus, however, is rightfully on Deutch and Powell, two young actors who have finally been given the leading roles they deserve after years of toiling in the background or, in Deutch’s case, appearing in absolute dross opposite the likes of James Franco. Those who have been following them all along can rejoice: this is their moment.
Powell showed off his comedy chops from the very beginning, in Ryan Murphy’s loopy slasher series, Scream Queens, playing the foil to Emma Roberts’ queen bee (“That’s not a compliment, Chad!”). Here, though, Deutch gets the opportunity to really employ her physicality in a way she never has before.
The way she contorts her face, looking simultaneously like a frightened mouse and someone who’s had more than enough crap to last a lifetime, is wonderful to behold. She’s a terrific physical comedian. When her boss makes a jab about how Harper’s skin bounces back because of her age, it’s almost meta-commentary on Deutch’s own innate ability to control her facial muscles.
The actress’ line delivery is what makes many of Set It Up‘s funniest moments really land. Audiences are accustomed to watching talented comedians rattling off dialogue until something funny comes out or, more often than not, doesn’t. There’s none of that here. Deutch times everything expertly, hitting every note perfectly whether she’s discussing merkins or the benefits of time-wasting.
Powell is the ideal match for her, playing straight in a way he hasn’t before and more than rising to the occasion. His oddly handsome looks — that small mouth, a flop of Backstreet Boys-esque hair — elevate him above the Zac Efrons of the world. He’s immediately more interesting than his type suggests.
The two have a fizzy, easy chemistry, the kind that allows for rapid-fire back and forth without ever feeling glib. Their witty repartee is a bit When Harry Met Sally at times, but without feeling like a re-hash (this is also in spite of the New York setting). Harper may flail (and, in one hilarious sequence that speaks to all writers, she cries when trying to pitch a story), but she’s no type-A Sally. And Charlie is a grump but not acidic like Harry.
Although Set It Up pays homage to rom coms (the flick is loaded with so many references it demands an immediate re-watch), it’s not derivative. Fans of the genre will have fun spotting all the nods, but this is still unequivocally its own story. Harper and Charlie feel like real characters, with real backstories, rather than meaningless stand-ins for genre faves.
Set It Up nails several rom com staples, including the meet-cute, the race through the airport and the And Yet moment, but they don’t unravel predictably. The sexiest moment is a slow dance to a familiar rom com hit, something that, in itself, is subversion.
What screenwriter Katie Silberman (a producer on the rather lovely modern rom com How to Be Single) and director Claire Scanlon have done here is create a classic rom com story with a modern sensibility. It’s a film that’s heartwarming but also challenging, moving but impressively strange at times (particularly when it comes to Titus Burgess’ weirdo janitor).
There’s recognizable warmth, and familiarity, to Set It Up, from its NYC setting to its eventual denouement, but the flick subverts expectations whenever it’s expected to play by the rules. The two leads are equally wonderful — they don’t fall out over something stupid just so the story can push them back together, and their courtship is just subtle enough for the audience to recognize it’s happening, and cheer them on, even while they remain in the dark.
As a showcase for two actors who more than deserve their moment to shine, Set It Up is hugely satisfying. As a modern romantic comedy, it’s glorious.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.