A Dissenting Word on “Set It Up”


It’s instructive that many articles lauding Set It Up as the second coming of the rom-com don’t contest its aggressive mediocrity. In fact, most reviews spin that mediocrity as a net positive: Set It Up is unoriginal, Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson writes — but that’s a feature of the genre, not a bug. The Atlantic’s David Sims concedes that the film’s production values, heavy use of montages, and insufferable soundtrack leave something to be desired, but who cares, because the leads’ “will-they-won’t-they tension is enough for the movie to power through the silliest moments.” (Is it, though, when it’s clear as the glass on a midtown skyscraper that they “will”?) The Hollywood Reporter called the film “mostly predictable in the best sense.” Our reviewer enjoyed it, and over at IndieWire, Kate Erbland described Set It Up as “cinematic comfort food.” But what’s comforting about food that tastes like nothing at all?

Set It Up wears its genre trappings proudly. Zoey Deutch stars as Harper, the beleaguered assistant to media mogul Kirsten (Lucy Liu). Like Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, or Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30, Harper yearns to do important, substantial work, yet is thwarted by the realities of her job, which include fetching dinner for Kirsten and pacing around the office wearing her boss’s Fitbit so her trainer won’t get angry. Within minutes of the film’s start, she meets Charlie (Glen Powell), an assistant himself to investor Rick (Taye Diggs), who works in the same building and is also tolerating his crappy gig in the hopes of moving up the corporate ladder. Together, they scheme to set up their single bosses so they can finagle some much-needed downtime.

In the first sentence of her largely positive review of the film, Amy Nicholson astutely describes the relationship between rom-com fans and the movie industry as an abusive one. That’s exactly what I felt watching this movie after reading all the glowing reviews — that the industry is an abusive partner, starving that significant portion of the public that craves comedies about the pursuit and maintenance of the romantic relationships that shape most people’s lives. Then, when this half-assed compilation of cosmetically enhanced, mind-numbing stereotypes appears on our screens, we lap it up like a beloved childhood treat we’ve yearned for for years. Set It Up may be an oasis in the desert, but that doesn’t mean the water tastes good.

There’s a jangly soundtrack of bopping Motown hits; huge, sun-dappled New York City office towers; that thing where we’re asked to believe that a beautiful, smart, put-together young woman hasn’t had a date in years. At the film’s start, Harper is working late yet again, half her collar tucked adorably into her sweater, hair endearingly gathered in a messy bun. Charlie comes off rather more smarmy — he wears suits and dates a supermodel — but, deep down, he’s, like, a really good dude.

Much of the fanfare that’s been made about Set It Up has to do with its contemporary updates to long-lasting formulas. A pizza eaten straight from the box on the floor of an apartment shared with a roommate caps off a romantic evening; Harper doesn’t have to sacrifice her career ambitions to get the guy; neither Rick nor Kirsten is white. The film is unflinching in its critique of income inequality, the entitlement of the wealthy, and gig-economy demoralization. But wokeness alone isn’t enough to freshen up a stale concoction. And while Deutch is a natural, endlessly watchable performer, and Powell provides an appealing enough contrast to her doe-eyed charm, the two are almost completely lacking in chemistry.

Still, it’s no wonder critics are slobbering all over it: Set It Up is a movie about movies. Or rather, it’s a movie about the kinds of movies viewers wish it actually was. Harper and Charlie debate whether their plan is more Cyrano or The Parent Trap; the film flits along at the screwball pace of early-2000s Hollywood rom-coms, but with more dick jokes, because this is a Netflix joint. You could get positively smashed turning the movie’s frequent well-trod conceits into a drinking game — like the moment when a fast song turns into a slow one, forcing our reluctant lovebirds to get closer.

Set It Up is created by and for people who love reprising such hoary moments; reviewers tend to be forgiving of programmatic entertainment that engages with its own clichés. Because we’re starving for a genre that has no global franchise potential — no need for CGI or a green screen for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson to rage against — critics predisposed to the genre review Set It Up like it’s a fine dish. Really, though, the movie is cinematic Soylent: flavorless, joyless, and devoid of any surprises. It’s a testament to the film industry’s years of neglect that we leave feeling full.