Netflix’s “Set It Up” Makes a Compelling Case for Romantic-Comedy Formula


Sometimes, the best pleasures are the simplest ones. Boy meets girl, boy competes against girl, maybe the boy will fall in love with the girl. Maybe they won’t. The latest film powered by this time-tested “will they/won’t they” formula is Claire Scanlon’s feature debut Set It Up. It’s a feel-good throwback to Nineties romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail that left me — and a never-to-be-disclosed number of Netflix viewers — warm and nostalgic for the simple pleasure of falling in love.

In the film, a dedicated personal assistant, Harper (Zoey Deutch), works night and day to please her famed sports reporter boss, Kirsten (Lucy Liu), in the hopes of getting her attention. Harper aspires to be a great journalist but has yet to even file her first story. Until then, she’s stuck faking her boss’s step counter, rushing to fetch obscure orders (“that thing that I like from that place”), and managing Kirsten’s nonstop schedule, which often keeps the two of them cooped up inside one of Manhattan’s corporate glass cages long into the night.

Harper’s nemesis, Charlie (Glen Powell), works in the same building for a businessman named Rick (Taye Diggs), a boss with a hair-trigger temper who wrecks his office when things don’t go his way. Also desperate to get into his supervisor’s good graces, Charlie takes on humiliating tasks: creating Rick’s son’s science projects; reciting a list of tasty foods while Rick drinks juice; saving a seat so Rick can show up at the last minute to his son’s school play. Despite his best efforts, Charlie gets frequently criticized for his performance, and the time he spends at the office wears on his crumbling relationship.

So it stands to reason that Harper and Charlie will pool their encyclopedic knowledge of their bosses’ schedules and preferences and scheme to match up the two, a plan straight from The Parent Trap and Clueless playbook. Only then may they finally get some time to themselves.

While the plot is familiar, Katie Silberman’s witty script plays with expectations. In one sequence, the pair dip out of a party much the way they might if they were sneaking home early to have sex. Instead, they’re grabbing pizza. Since Charlie’s roommate (Pete Davidson) commandeered the living room for his evening plans, the couple have to scramble, with their oversized box, up the fire escape and into Charlie’s room to enjoy their cheesy spoils. When the scene ends, it’s likely not on the note you would expect.

Harper and Charlie’s flirty dialogue rushes by at screwball comedy speeds, a funny affectation that’s no less effective now than it was in movies like It Happened One Night or The Lady Eve. Harper will accidentally say the wrong thing to Charlie, then quickly excuse herself from the scene as if she was getting pulled off a stage. The two speedily but affectionately tease each other in the mode of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s characters from His Girl Friday.

We see the relationship deepen by the way these endearing performers look at each other and how the camera closes in on their faces on screen. Romantic comedies often are about the distance between characters and our wish to see them share the frame — and each other. For much of the movie, Charlie and Harper are filmed separately or at a respectful distance from each other within a shot. Then, when they find themselves slow dancing, we see the way he looks at her has changed. Their faces are in the same frame, and they’re physically close. The moment, like the film, is crafted to set hearts aflutter, and it works.


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