Audiences who love Hollywood romantic comedies have been in an abusive relationship for a decade.
For a long while, it was magical. Katherine Hepburn tackled Cary Grant (like, actually tackled him) and tamed a cantankerous Spencer Tracy. Doris Day dazzled Rock Hudson. Fonda had her Redford, Streisand had her Ryan O’Neal. The 1990s and early 2000s let us swoon over women Julia, Meg, Reese, Sandra, Meg – each actress anchoring a $100 million hit. But around the 80th year of bliss – the oak anniversary, if you were wondering – the studios gave the genre a coffin. Romantic comedies hacked the expensive 2010 flop How Do You Know into a bloody hankie, then basically up and died.
The autopsy gaslit women by claiming they don’t go to the movies. Fact: Females over 25 buy more tickets than teen boys – than anyone – even without films made for, by and starring women. The truth is two-parts boring blah blah blah about $30 million marketing budgets scaring traditional studios from green-lighting anything that won’t make over $100 million on opening weekend alone – and one-part this line from Claire Scanlon’s Set It Up, the first great, glossy rom-com in years. It’s made, tellingly, by Netflix.
“Do you know what the opposite of love is?” asks its twentysomething lead. “Indifference.” She’d know. Hollywood’s been indifferent to rom coms for a while now – but maybe the actress playing her can change that. It’s impossible not to fall for Zoey Deutch’s Harper, an aspiring sports writer slaving away as a personal assistant to her hero, Kirsten (Lucy Liu). The young woman is smart, funny, strange, loyal and electric with fear that she won’t fulfill the magazine editor’s smallest whim. She’s a tiny thing with auburn curls and quivering lips that toggle through emotions faster than they can be identified. When Kirsten dares Harper to pitch a story idea when she’s halfway out the door, our hero beams, freezes, swallows, scrunches her eyes, exhales and stammers about the Gerilympics, an Olympiad for white-haired senior citizens. All this happens so fast you can’t even see Deutch acting. But her bitty strut, widened Bambi eyes and motormouth Rosalind Russell delivery are evidence she’s in complete control.
On another floor in their skyscraper, wannabe investor Charlie (Glen Powell) fetches juices for his boss, Rick (Taye Diggs). Picture Patrick Batemen without the chainsaw, and that’s the corporate hotshot on an average day. Our six-foot honey badger Charlie, naturally, wants to be just like him. His job includes, among many other things, protecting the tycoon from hearing about his ex-wife’s upcoming “spiritual non-legal commitment ceremony” – a task done with the panic of throwing one’s body on a grenade. The first time Charlie meets Harper, he’s so desperate to feed Rick that he poaches the burger she ordered for her overlord. Sauntering into the elevator, he bites into her pickle and grins.
These workaholics are both in psychotically committed relationships with their employers. But the grunts control their bosses’ schedules; they also know their turn-ons (power, self-branding) and turn-offs (sour cream, mansplaining). If they can manipulate the people holding their white-collar leashes into hooking up, they may even get to occasionally go home before midnight. (All the better for Harper to swipe Tinder while eating popcorn from an ingenious feedbag, i.e. a hoodie worn backwards like a trough.) As for Charlie’s model girlfriend Suze (Joan Smalls ), she already acts single. There’s a note-perfect beat at a party when he sneaks up to hug her from behind. She screams with glee and then sees that it’s just him. Her second squeal sounds phony. If our man truly cared about a soulmate connection, he’d notice.
Harper doesn’t date. Charlie barely is. Of course these kids will fall in love, too, but it’s the jostling to get there that matters, the way that the assistants attack each other while bowing and scraping before their supervisors. Liu and Diggs stomp through the film like toddler gods, cracking exactly one smile each. Their cold menace is their connection. When Charlie advises Rick to tell Kirsten he “sees her,” his boss groans, “What does that even mean?” He uses the line anyway. Of course his fellow apex predator retches.
Screenwriter Katie Silberman’s dialogue is a reminder that pre-Apatow movies bothered to script quips instead of pointing the camera and praying for improv. Like a classic screwball farce, Set It Up‘s four leads hurl lines at each other like 60 m.p.h. sliders. It’s an unabashed rom-com – Scanlon doesn’t try to straddle drama in the name of a safety net – which means the soundtrack sometimes blares like a TV game-show reveal of a brand new boat. But the comic energy is fierce, especially in Deutch’s corner; she’s had a gift for playing fast-talking dames since the underrated Vampire Academy. Give her shoulder pads and a time machine and she could muscle into His Girl Friday.
And while the movie isn’t heavily plotted, the humor is so dense it’s practically footnoted. Every gag has callbacks – Harper’s unnerving fixation on babies, an exasperated neighborhood waiter – plus extra punchlines tacked on like asterisks. Every sequence is bracketed in slapstick. Scenes start with, say, a glimpse of Taye Diggs attempting to slice open a whiskey bottle with a samurai sword; they end with Deutch wheeling out of frame on an roller chair waving, “Byeeeee!” When Harper embraces her best friend Becca (Meredith Hagner), Charlie is in the deep background invisibly fist-bumping Becca’s fiancé. Their world is 3D.
No one in Set It Up is nice – even Harper can be cruel. Instead, the movie gives us an extraordinary sense of embedded empathy. Reading minds is what these assistants do best. They study faces for cues like service dogs and translate their owners’ commands to order “that thing from that place.” In the sexiest scene in the movie, Charlie scans the hunger in Harper’s eyes when they open a pizza box and chivalrously lets her select the best piece. At that moment, the film cranks up the erotic R&B. And at the climax, look for the tiniest squint, an almost imperceptible poker tell that allows the tone to spin from resentful to romantic.
That empathy – Harper and Charlie’s eagerness to understand their bosses and each other – might be what defines the next era of romantic comedies. We’ve cycled through the bite of Bringing Up Baby, the ease of Pillow Talk and retro-screwball bite of What’s Up Doc, the bombastic grins of our Nineties goddesses. Now audiences want movies with insight by filmmakers who wave away girl-versus-boy behavioral cliches to write real characters. So here’s our command: more films like Set It Up, please. Netflix has started releasing a rom-com every month. If the studios still won’t make them, swipe left.