Netflix’s Set It Up Puts the Romance Back in the Rom-Com

Pop Culture

Netflix’s Set It Up Puts the Romance Back in the Rom-Com

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Back in 2011, Mindy Kaling, the creator and star of The Mindy Project wrote about how romantic comedies were her favourite kind of movies. “I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from Alien and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it,” she wrote.

As an incurable fan of romantic comedies (who, like, Kaling is the Sandra Bullock of her life’s film), I related hard to her piece. Especially when she savagely broke down how rom-coms have always saddled women with the most unoriginal tropes – but most when she stressed how embarrassing it felt to admit that she enjoyed rom-coms. “Saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity,” she said, referring to how fluffy the genre had become in the last 20 years, making it almost impossible to champion.

This is why Netflix’s recent rom-com Set It Up, directed by Claire Scanlon, is such a breath of fresh air. It’s more than possible to like its self-aware antics, and still enjoy the earnestness of the romance. The film infuses new energy into a genre that has been reduced to a heap of unremarkable cliches.

Rom-coms pretty much defined mainstream cinema in the ’90s with classics like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, One Fine Day, and Jerry Maguire. Over the years though, all we had were gimmicky Valentine’s Day offerings, one indistinguishable from the next. This was the golden age of Katherine Heigl in a variety of “lost girl” roles and none of the fun that defined the genre. In the last couple of years, Hollywood studios have backed even fewer rom-coms, with only Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and last year’s The Big Sick making a splash. And, even then, they were unable to garner that wholesome appeal of a romantic comedy.

Set It Up exists as a canny tribute to the rom-coms of yesteryear, hitting a sweet, nostalgic feel-good spot.

This is where Set It Up differs. At first pass, it boasts of the usual rom-com suspects: a feel-good poster with shiny, smiling leads. A cheesy title and an inoffensive tagline (“Finding love takes some assistants!”) and most importantly the backdrop of New York. And even though it harks back to a simpler, uncomplicated era when a rom-com didn’t need gimmicky elements like an illness (The Big Sick) or a jungle kidnap (Snatched), the film is also a modern update on the genre.

Set It Up revolves around two young, overworked and underpaid assistants, Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) who hatch a plot to trick their overbearing bosses into falling in love. You already know where this is going. Some plot contrivances follow, including a hilarious scene where Harper and Charlie engineer an elevator shutdown to ensure that the bosses meet each other. Except, it goes awfully wrong, features urine, and a wonderful cameo by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess.

If you’ve ever wondered whether it was possible to pull off a millennial iteration of When Harry Met Sally, Set It Up comes very, very close. It exists as a canny tribute to the rom-coms of yesteryear, hitting a sweet, nostalgic feel-good spot. Leads featuring a “tomboy” and the guy next door? Check. Squabbling-friends-turned-lovers trope? Check. A meet-cute? Check. Quick repartee? Check. Uncomplicated, unlikeable exes? Check. There is a nod to The Parent Trap, and there’s the quintessential airport scene, albeit with a twist.

Set It Up

In Set It Up, Harper and Charlie share electric chemistry, an important requirement of any rom-com.

Image Credit: Netflix

But the film’s best homage to rom-coms is undoubtedly how the one of its meet-cutes is named “And yet…”, where a person lists down all the annoying traits in their lover. And yet with all the reasons to not love them, they still do. It’s a common presence in most romantic declarations (think When Harry Met Sally).

What makes this film all the more charming, despite its familiar setting and predictable proceedings, are its subtle contemporary touches. The stunted ambition of millennials that are a result of demanding jobs. An almost non-existent love life. Reliance on dating apps. The film’s female lead making the most of her assistant salary by calling for free chips at the neighbourhood bar. The insistence that a lover needs to be a friend first. A diverse cast (although the leads are still white).

But most importantly an actual interest in the professional aspirations of its female leads. In the film, Harper’s boss (Lucy Liu) is a sports journalist who’s shown as someone who’s the best at her job and an actual role model for her young assistant, even when she is channelling Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. What’s even greater than Set It Up taking her ambitions seriously, is the fact that it never asks her to choose between her job and love. Harper can undoubtedly have it all. It’s the most I’ve related to any female lead in a rom-com in recent years.

Come for the nostalgia, stay for the smarts.