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Non-Review Review: Set It Up

Set It Up is a loving ode to the classic romantic comedies of the nineties, harking back even further to their antecedents, the screwball comedies of the forties.

The basic premise of Set It Up is straightforward. Zoey Deutch is Harper, the personal assistant to Lucy Liu’s Kirsten. Kirsten is a cutting-edge sports journalist, and Harper is an aspiring writer who found herself working as a personal assistant and has been unable to extricate herself from that situation. Glen Powell is Charlie, the personal assistant to Taye Diggs’ Rick. Charlie hopes to leverage his experience with Rick into a successful and prosperous career, if he can survive Rick’s temper tantrums.

Their chemistry is through the roof.

Following a chance encounter while picking up a delivery late one night, Charlie and Harper hit upon a cunning plan to escape the ridiculous demands of their bosses. Charlie and Harper will use the positions of trust afforded to them as personal assistants in order to trick their bosses into a relationship. Their logic is that a potential romance would eat into Kirsten and Rick’s free time, and thus afford Charlie and Harper more personal time. Charlie can reconnect with his increasingly estranged girlfriend, while Harper can try to become the writer that she always wanted to be.

It is perhaps churlish to describe Set It Up as formulaic, as the primary appeal of the movie is in watching a charming cast navigate a modern spin on a variety of classic romantic comedy tropes. There are perhaps moments when Set It Up leans a little too heavily into its genre trappings, and there are moments when its attempts to update genre conventions for the twenty-first century don’t exactly land. Nevertheless, the film is elevated by charming central performances and breezy yet witty script that understands the mechanics of the genre enough to know when to play with them and when to play them straight.

Will we see some PDAs from the PAs?

There is just enough self-awareness in Set It Up. As with a lot of modern cinema, Set It Up is a film that understands that its audience is conversant in the trappings of narrative and genre, that modern viewers are canny enough to recognise the sorts of stock contrivances and coincidences that are necessary for a plot like this to function. As a result, and in order to bridge the gulf that this knowledge creates, many modern feature films tend to feature characters who are willing to draw attention to the trappings even as they employ them, a little nudge to get the film over these potential hurdles.

The characters in Set It Up are just genre savvy enough to understand the mechanics of the plot within which they have found themselves. When the two personal assistants come up with their plan to get their bosses to hook up, Harper employs “Cyrano” as a verb, in reference to Cyrano de Bergerac. Charlie has a more grounded and contemporary comparison for their plot, describing it as “straight-up Parent-Trapping”, explicitly referencing “the Lindsay Lohan classic” and avoiding a reference that might skew even slightly classical.

Meeting cute.

As characters navigate Set It Up, they draw attention to the dynamics at play. Describing how characters in romantic comedies are always running, even to events that have been organised well in advance, Harper explains the concept of “the dicking around thing”, which Charlie dutifully indulges in at the climax. In order to get the two bosses to hook up, Harper insists that they need to engineer “a meet cute.” Indeed, one of the best jokes in the film comes at the climax, when a passer-by mistakes one type of last-minute romantic comedy interruption for a slightly different kind of last-minute romantic comedy interruption.

Some of this is a little frustrating, as if Set It Up feels the need to constantly wink at the camera in order to justify its reliance of familiar romantic comedy frameworks, as if audience members cannot possibly accept Harper and Charlie as characters unless those characters are introduced as romantic comedy fans. However, Set It Up never layers any of this on too heavily, this layer of self-awareness never distracting too heavily from a fairly engaging old-school conventional romantic comedy.

Slice o’ life.

Set It Up fits most of its marks as a romantic comedy. The two lead characters are a relatively free-spirited fast-talking woman and a more uptight conventionally professionally-oriented man. In contrast to the relatively grounded and self-aware leads, the movie’s supporting couple are consciously heightened slightly. In large part due to Taye Diggs, Rick’s tantrums are a movie highlight. Flying into a rage at the slightest provocation, Rick makes all manner of ridiculous demands. “Why do we only have a 2D printer?” Rick yells as he scatters paper around the office.

Romantic set-ups give way to hilariously awkward developments, which in turn neatly dovetail back into romantic pay-offs. Harper and Charlie’s first idea for a “meet cute” is to trap Kirsten and Rick in an elevator together, only for things to go horribly wrong when a claustrophobic delivery man gets stuck with them and starts stripping, although this provides a solid enough foundation for Harper and Charlie to push the plan to the next stage. Similarly, what initially begins as a pragmatic and cynical scheme by Harper and Charlier inevitably develops into something approaching friendship and potential romance.

Making it office-ial.

Set It Up captures the look and feel of a romantic comedy. Writer Katie Silberman and director Claire Scanlon make excellent use of New York City, which seems to be the hub of the genre; there are rooftop parties and anonymous office buildings, crowded streets and claustrophobic spaces. The film moves quickly through the use of montage and emotional beats set to a variety of old standards; Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Romeo and Juliet, The Power of Love, Nowhere to Run to, Brandy, My Type. There is something to be said for seeing familiar trope employed with skill, care and an easy wit. Set It Up makes it look effortless.

The film is elevated by the easy rapport that Deutch and Powell share, both offering heightened performances that feel more stylised and exaggerated than contemporary romances or comedies afford – characters repeatedly note how quickly Harper speaks, while Charlie has an engaging physicality when he share space with her. With Deutch and Powell as Harper and Charlie, Set It Up seems to hark back even further than its ninety roots to a more basic screwball archetype. The mannered performances feel akin to those from His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, which riff upon similar dynamics.

Lunch on the go.

Set It Up works best when Deutch and Powell are on-screen together, whether interacting with one another alone or sparring around members of the supporting cast. Katie Silberman’s script is packed full of witty banter that relies upon rapid-fire deliver, the conversations between Harper and Charlie often feeling like good-natured sparring sessions. Naturally, the two cannot seem to stand each other at first, their feelings developing into mutual appreciation and eventually even affection.

In those moments when Set It Up works best, Deutch and Powell feel almost like they belong in black-and-white, wearing oversized suits, smoking profusely and talking quickly into landlines rather than mobile telephones. The pair avoid adopting an overly naturalistic approach to their comedy, which helps to distinguish Set It Up from contemporary romantic indie comedies like Obvious Child or Francis Ha. Deutch plays Harper like the lead in a radio play with a rat-tat-tat delivery, whereas Powell at times seems to be playing a live-action sixties cartoon with his shoulders providing raw momentum.

This isn’t what Charlie had in mind when he suggested ca-noodling.

At the same time, Set It Up avoids the sort of easy affluence associated with the strand of old-fashioned modern romantic comedies. Films like Mamma Mia, It’s Complicated and Home Again beacon readers into an alternate world of wealth and materialism, with protagonists who seem completely divorced from any material challenges. In contrast, Set It Up makes a point to emphasis the economic anxieties of its leads, especially Harper. It is good to see a conventional old-fashioned romantic comedy with struggling protagonists.

There are points at which Set It Up does run into problems. While Scanlon does an excellent job balancing tone and keeping the film moving across its one-hundred-minute run-time, there are points at which it leans a little bit too heavily into the genre trappings and conventions. In particular, Laura Karpman’s score feels like it was assembled from music cues that were deemed “just too much” from some long-list mid-tier nineties romantic comedy, with no emotional beat left unsignposted and no madcap situation left undersold. There is a sense that Set It Up is homaging the genre’s history, but could have shown restraint.

A whole different ballgame.

Set It Up also brushes up against the gender issues that make the modern romantic comedy so difficult to navigate. Inevitably, Harper and Charlie realise that their plan to set up Kirsten and Rick is an amoral abuse of their privileged access to these two people. However the film only reaches that conclusion when it is revealed that one of the two parties in that secondary relationship has been acting in extreme bad faith to their partner. The movie brushes off any other concerns about violations of trust, right down to playing Harper arranging for Kirsten to have a bikini wax to satisfy Rick’s sexual tastes as broad comedy.

Similarly, there are other aspects of the film that also embrace the trappings of the romantic comedy just a little bit too uncritically. In the aforementioned elevator sequence, a lot of the humour about the stripping claustrophobic delivery man seems to derive from the fact that he is obese. It seems like a cheap laugh at the character’s expense, with his appearance treated as a crass punchline. Set It Up understands that these sorts of jokes – awkward situational humour in unlikely surroundings – are part of the rich history of the genre, but the sequence plays as a little mean-spirited.

“Boy, they have some good stuff on here.”

Still, Set It Up moves quickly and gracefully enough that it gets past most of these issues. Indeed, its very existence stands as a testament to Netflix’ business model. Although (understandably) provoking the suspicion and paranoia of more traditionalist cinephiles, Netflix has shown a very canny understanding of modern cinema. Set It Up is a movie that exists to fill a gap in cinematic release schedules, as one of those movies that simply cannot survive in the modern theatrical distribution landscape.

Set It Up feels like a nostalgic throwback because movies like this simply are not viable as major theatrical releases. It feel-good mid-budget fare aimed at adult audiences. It lacks edge associated with low-budget indie films that helped make films like Lady Bird or Beginners so appealing. It also lacks the direct appeal to older conventional movie-goers that made films like Something’s Gotta Give viable. Set It Up is a movie that could never survive in the modern theatrical market place, and it’s heartening to see Netflix find a way to make films like this viable once again. There are worse niches to film in the cinematic ecosphere.

Taking it in hand.

Set It Up is a charming reminder of the appeal of the classic romantic comedy, of the kind of films that are very rarely made any more and certainly very rarely made with such commitment and with these sorts of protagonists. Set It Up has charm to spare.

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