Netflix and chill
‘Set It Up’ is the streaming giant’s bid for a rom-com resurrection
Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell in “Set It Up”
It’s been a sad millennium for the romantic comedy.
For nearly two decades, the rom-com has degraded to the raunch-com, suffering a steep slide into crass slapstick that’s devoid of wit, heart, or longing. The occasional Nancy Meyers charmer or underseen indie aside, the genre is a pale, pitiful imitation of the 1990s Golden Age that writer/director Nora Ephron defined (“Sleepless In Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail”).
Enter Netflix, which serves up “Set It Up,” a clever take on the classic meet-cute. Zoey Deutch (“Why Him?”) and Glen Powell (“Hidden Figures”) play Harper and Charlie, two executive assistants who toil 24/7 for workaholic New York City corporate elites (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs).
With non-existent personal lives, the duo conspires various matchmaking schemes for their bosses, hoping a romance between the two will finally give them some free time of their own.
Banter-filled comedy ensues, at times in meta levels (Harper and Charlie use rom-com tropes as part of their strategy), but even as they succeed with small victories, the inevitable becomes apparent: Maybe the bosses aren’t really the ones who should be together.
The initial stretch is little more than a glorified TV effort, more winking than sophisticated, but the cast has fun with the contrived mechanics. Then, as the leads start to loosen up and the script adds some interesting thematic nuances—like how the idea of manipulating relationships, even with good intentions, can backfire with unintended consequences—this plot machine creates interesting moral conflicts that raise the stakes.
Deutch and Powell aren’t going to make people forget Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks anytime soon, but the pair’s charms gradually evolve from playfully quirky to a tangible, tender chemistry.
Director Claire Scanlon (TV’s “The Office” and “The Last Man On Earth”) and Katie Silberman’s script follow Ephron’s well-established template, even as they add doses of risque blue humor, from occasional sexual sight gags to surprising C-word level coarse language. The crutch of intermittent raunch feels out of place in an otherwise decidedly old-fashioned tone.
Scanlon knows how to capture a sense of place, too (another Ephron skill), showcasing the NYC landscape while also orchestrating a sense of tight-knit community, like the camaraderie shared in the Yankee’s cheap seats. It all flows with romanticized whimsy.
Her use of Motown pop/R&B standards can’t be under-estimated, either—a key aesthetic that gives contemporary shenanigans an air of starry-eyed timelessness. Laura Karpman’s plucky compositions also augment Scanlon’s homage to Ephron.
The ultimate test, though, is if the story effectively pulls at the heartstrings when it matters most. And it does, saving the best scripted sentiments for the moment of truth. Far better than mawkish greeting card platitudes, Harper and Charlie express humble, heartfelt confessions, the kind that helped make Hanks and Ryan icons.
It’s cute. It’s fluffy. It’s adorbs. “Set It Up” aspires to be the kind of rom-com we need again and, especially at the end (when it counts), it totally is.