I imagine it’s difficult to create a romantic comedy that is self-aware without being cynical. The genre’s main purpose is to strengthen our beliefs in true love and happy endings. Cynical writing doesn’t accomplish these objectives.
Characters can be introduced as skeptics or cynics regarding the existence of true love, but ultimately they’re transformed into believers after meeting “the one.”
Since cynical writing is antithetic to a rom-com’s destination, many critics argue that the storytelling in these heartwarming films is overly saccharine and portrays idealistic or unrealistic views of romance. Despite my unwavering fandom for the genre, I admit this criticism applies to many rom-coms.
Director Claire Scanlon and writer Katie Silberman created a delightful story that avoids rom-com tropes and displays a healthy amount of self-awareness in Set It Up.
In addition to Scanlon and Silberman’s deft storytelling, Set It Up thrives due to the strength of its acting performances. Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, both of whom I was introduced to in Everybody Wants Some!! (a personal favorite), are outstanding as the romantic leads.
Powell’s character, Charlie, is the aforementioned cynic at the movie’s outset. He has a confident façade but also allows his boss and girlfriend to completely control him.
Deutch’s Harper is a romantic believer and a die-hard sports fan (which are essentially the same thing after all) with a moderate dose of Liz Lemon quirkiness. Harper is a personal assistant for Kirsten (Lucy Liu), the founder and CEO of a sports media empire.
Charlie’s boss, Rick (Taye Diggs), is a successful investment banker. Kirsten and Rick can be described as demanding (at best) or tyrannical (at worst).
Harper and Charlie are adversaries when they first meet. But they quickly form an alliance and conspire to set their maniacal bosses up with one another. The prevailing logic behind our heroes’ matchmaking caper is that their personal lives will greatly improve if their bosses are in relationships.
The hypothesis proves correct as the two assistants’ experience a substantial decrease in their workloads as Kirsten and Rick’s relationship heats up.
Additionally, Harper and Charlie’s truce develops into a friendship with palpable romantic chemistry. The chemistry between the two characters is a testament to the connectivity of the superb acting, directorial vision, and well-crafted dialogue.
I believe these strengths will be the movie’s enduring legacy along with its memorable moments and rewatchability. I’ll prove my case by referencing criteria that The Ringer uses when deep-diving repeat-viewing gems on “The Rewatchables” podcast.
Set It Up has many qualified candidates for the “Dion Waiters Heat Check” award. Pete Davidson steals a few scenes as Duncan, Charlie’s roommate. Titus Burgess is equally entertaining and creepy as his aptly-named “Creepy Tim” character. Leonard Ouzts is only in one sequence but earns a nomination for his hilarious appearance.
The movie has several rewatchable scenes, including Ouzts’ appearance, a vintage rom-com moment at Yankee Stadium, the “pizza scene”, and a great NY rooftop party sequence. There are a few more but I’m avoiding spoilers in case any of you haven’t yet seen the movie.
Set It Up succeeds because it deploys classic genre staples. But it also goes above and beyond by offering viewers more depth than average rom-coms.
It carries intellectual depth and provides brief moments of rom-com meta-commentary that I found enjoyable. Any rom-com with a set-up premise in which characters offhandedly use the phrase “Parent Trapping” is both self-aware and respecting of its ancestors.
Scanlon has directed many episodes of iconic television comedy shows, but this was her first feature film. Given the near-universal praise that her debut film garnered, I think her inbox will be flooded with screenplays in the coming years.
As Scanlon told Alison Herman of The Ringer, “[the director’s] job is to make people care about the characters and the people.”
She certainly succeeded in making us care about the characters in Set It Up.
Late to the party? Check out the previous installments of the Rom-Com Renaissance: