Set It Up Is Netflix's First Great Romantic Comedy

Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell Star in a Memorable Addition to the Genre

By Sam Eichner ·
KC Bailey/Netflix

Watch enough Netflix Original romantic comedies, like I have, and a few eerie commonalities begin to emerge: two recognizable yet not movie-star-famous leads; the indie-level budget and mainstream appeal; a relatively short running time; no discernible visual style. It can feel as if it’s become a sub-genre unto itself, even if, in reality, it’s simply emblematic of the way romantic comedies are made and seen in general. Most are forgettable, mindless, formulaic, entertaining enough—part of the pleasure, of course, is that they do not provoke, but placate. The few that stand out do so despite or in spite of the limits of the genre. On Netflix, though, where a deluge of original content has led to Kafkaesque concerns about shows and movies getting lost, the forgettable nature of rom-coms is intensified: it’s so easy to miss them, anyway, or to watch something similar.

I’m pleased, then, that the streaming platform’s latest, Set It Up, directed by Claire Scanlon, has managed to rise to the top, bolstered by strong reviews and, perhaps, an aggressive marketing campaign (it’s one of the few films I’ve seen advertisements for on cable; trailers for The Kissing Booth, an extremely popular new teen rom-com, have also popped up on TV). It’s a movie that deserves to the kind of “oh wait, this is actually good” critical acclaim we give to rom-coms (or comedies in general) released in theaters, like Game Night or Blockers.

The movie’s set up involves a set up: one night, two overworked twenty-something New York assistants, Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), hatch a plot to set up their demanding, workaholic bosses, the editress of an edgy, sports-centric digital media company (Lucy Liu) and an uber-successful venture capitalist (Taye Diggs), in order to have more free time. Harper wants to focus on a story she’s hoping to get published on the site, about a geriatric Olympic games; Charlie wants more bandwith to cater to the needs of his model girlfriend. Naturally, they end up getting something else, because love always comes when you least expect it—like, when you conspire with someone attractive to make two other attractive people fall in love.

The matchmaking is a clever and useful conceit; it’s a way to acknowledge the artifice of the romantic comedy—Harper tells Charlie on that they need a “cute meet”—without parodying it, thus making the relationship developing behind the scenes all the more compelling and sincere. The script, by Katie Silberman, is sharp and funny, but never overwritten, particularly when it comes to the back-and-forth between Powell and Deutch, who seem to relish their flirty badinage (both starred in Richard Linklater’s banter-heavy Everyone Wants Some!!). Several memorable riffs—like Harper’s tendency to “over-dick” around when she has time before an event—have an Apatow-ian quality, though they’re never worn out. More importantly, the beats are well-paced: when Charlie has to fill in for Harper’s Tinder date to her best friend’s engagement party, it comes off as refreshingly unforced. The moment they share over a late-night pizza later, grease glistening around their mouths, is sweet and funny, and rings weirdly true: when better to realize your feelings for someone else than during the blissful nirvana of a drunken New York slice? 

A big reason this scene works is because of Zoey Deutch, who seems more comfortable in her own skin than any other young actress working today. She’s conventionally attractive, but her real beauty comes in her unabashed embrace of the ugly, the gross, the corporeal. She seem to thrive most when she looks unclean, unfashionable, overtired—in pajamas, say, eating free chips at a Mexican restaurant where she quarantines herself to finish a draft of her article. In the movie Flower, where she played a 17-year-old girl with a proclivity for giving head, Deutch reaches out and touches you in ways you don’t want her to (or didn’t expect). In Set It Up, this kind of intimacy allows her to flesh out a character that other actresses may leave flat.

It helps, too, that Silberman and Scanlon give their characters real drives, beyond the simple desire to get together. They have real-seeming best friends, in the form of Becca (the always scene-stealing Meredith Hagner, of Search Party) and Charlie’s gay roommate, Duncan, who looks like, talks like and is played by Pete Davidson. They’re also navigating their careers, with the self-doubt that comes with being young and uncertain about who you are and what you’re capable of. In the end, the duo does what you might expect. But it’s surprising how much the resolution pays respect to them as individuals—and therefore, how much you’re likely to remember them, amidst the onslaught of past, present and future Netflix rom-coms. 

Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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