There’s something simultaneously frustrating and soothing about cookie-cutter rom-coms like Set It Up. On the one hand they follow an unexciting, formulaic template which no longer holds any surprises. On the other, there’s no removing the Chill element of a true Netflix session – meaning that a sense of familiarity, when it feels comfortable, does the job of entertaining incredibly well.
Claire Scanlon’s Manhattan meet-cute could have gone either way. Two overworked (but no less fresh-faced) assistants hatch a plan to set up their cartoonishly tyrannical bosses in order to enjoy their own lives again. Harper (Zoey Deutch) is an aspiring journalist, clumsy and cute, running in circles around ESPN titan Kirsten Stevens (Lucy Liu). Charlie (Glen Powell) works in a nondescript finance role as an assistant to his highly-strung boss, Rick (Taye Diggs). On one of many stressful late shifts, Harper and Charlie cross paths over a catastrophic dinner order and soon a plan forms. Joking about aligning the stars that are currently controlling their lives, the only thing that can set the assistants free, it seems, is love. Some kind of love that totally doesn’t involve either of them, of course.
As the pair orchestrate and chaperone the dates and heartfelt gestures for their bosses, the set-up gives way to a more organic relationship that allows both Harper and Charlie to finally be honest about their own emotions too. Harper procrastinates from writing, but is too afraid to do anything about it. She wants to be a writer, and she needs to show that she’s survived working for Kirsten with something, anything to prove for it. When her roommate suddenly gets engaged, all signs begin to point to some kind of new set up for Harper’s own life too.
Charlie has a less obvious motivation and a deeper anxiety, resorting to defensive and self-deprecating jokes to mask his doubts about what he knows to be a good-looking but ultimately hopeless relationship with his model girlfriend Suze (Joan Smalls). Harper and Charlie mirror each other, trying their best in a day-to-day that’s suffocated by their jobs and those who have power over them. It’s this hardly tragic but no less likeable disaster framework that makes room for a romantic Cyrano-cum-Parent Trap scenario, as the pair so aptly define it themselves.
The straightforward, bouncy comedy thrives because of the lead pairing, who last shared the screen together in Richard Linklater’s carefree, charismatic Everybody Wants Some!!. Deutch and Powell are butter-smooth, their chemistry believable from the very first snarky quips to the awkward patience they give each other as their own romance blossoms. Past a conventionally charming plot played out by conventionally charming actors, Set It Up generously pays its thematic debt to a history of successful rom-coms by laying bare some of its own characters’ shortcomings.
A lot of it looks sickeningly perfect, but a clever narrative cinched with an “and yet” signature (inspired by an engagement speech halfway through the film) manages to celebrate the wholesome and somehow wise core: there aren’t many surprises, the problems that Harper and Charlie face don’t have incredibly high stakes, and their greater scheme isn’t always so captivating – and yet, it’s difficult to resist a loving smile by the end of it.
The film follows a well-trodden path – Scanlon points to ’30s and ’40s classics like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday as hopeful ancestors – but manages to feel fresh in its depiction of the workplace and arduous world of dating; allowing the lazy, vain and fickle to exist with their flaws, without being defined by them alone. No one is really evil or truly perfect, and in Set It Up everyone gets what they deserve. For an audience trusting this film with the fate of a 105-minute window of procrastination, relaxation or whatever other void Netflix Original offerings must now strive to fill, thankfully it feels like there’s a reward for them too.
Published 25 Jun 2018
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