Director: Claire Scanlon
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs
We often view certain movie genres as an integral product of their existing sociocultural landscapes. It’s natural to judge them in context of when they release. This is probably why so many of them, when stripped of their commercial parameters and generational awareness years later, tend to affect our minds differently on a TV screen as a lazy Sunday afternoon flick. Some attain an individuality previously blurred by the era they occupied, while others just don’t age well. A popular phrase being: “perhaps this might have worked a decade ago…”
Set It Up, the new Netflix film directed by Claire Scanlon, is the kind of by-the-books, breezy and inoffensively simple rom-com that – on the contrary – might have been offensively average and forgettable ten years ago. In a time when Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Natalie Portman and every other A-list star were exercising their versatile rom-com muscles, Scanlon’s cute little New York tale might have almost seemed stale and devoid of personality.
But 2018 is a self-serious year in which an old, nostalgic formula suddenly seems like a welcome breath of fresh air – a timely reintroduction of an industrial all-American narrative that thrives on making no statements and taking no (Manhattan) prisoners. If you sit closer to the screen, you might even be able to smell the freshly ground Starbucks coffee beans. There is, after all, nothing like unnaturally pretty faces falling in love between shadows and skyscrapers. Ironically, this film’s greatest strength, then, is its deliberate datedness.
Set It Up is about two overworked 20-something assistants, Harper (a charming Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), who decide to join forces to manipulate their ruthless bosses into falling for one another so that they are free to have a life. From chance elevator meetings to Yankees baseball games, they plan it all – and end up feeling like every second Indian parent should when they arrange-marriage their children’s dreams away irrespective of glaring incompatibilities.
Harper is stuck in her own good-natured The Devil Wears Prada story; she is the multitasking slave to Kirsten (Lucy Liu), the czarina of an online sports journalism empire. Charlie is in his own Yes Boss story; he is the nodding slave to sleazy Rick (Taye Diggs), a hotshot venture capitalist who holds the key to Charlie’s professional future. I can already see you calling up your naïve 2007 self and ordering them to pass you the ice-cream tub while warning them to not expect a gorgeous, high-strung soulmate to fall into your lap at lifeless adult workspaces.
Obviously, Harper and Charlie’s universes collide, and in trying to play cupid for their bosses, they grow to like each other like drunken Pizza binges over fancy gourmet takeaways. She is adorably under-confident, and he is adorably ambitious – you know the drill. The conflict, of course, arises when they realize that being puppeteers is futile when one of the puppets is broken.
Set It Up neatly packs in all the urban feel-good clichés in the most PG-13 way possible, but it very much remains a product of this moment. Like the apple-polishing kid that wants to impress every single teacher, it brazenly bears the politically correct ‘colours’ of 2018. Representation is the need of the hour – Lucy Liu is Chinese-American, Taye Diggs is African-American, Charlie’s roommate is gay, Charlie’s gold-digging girlfriend is Puerto Rican – but there’s always a strange sterility about the quintessential rom-com that makes these parts look like tick-marks on a to-do list.
And there’s something to be said, then, about the two leads being whiter than sunshine. As a result, rather than highlighting the ethnically and sexually inclusive anti-currents of our times, such films inadvertently end up validating Hollywood’s old-school “minority” gaze. The makers would rather add them as token ‘supporting characters’ of power than full-bodied protagonists of racial complexity – a snapshot, if there was ever one, of the very nation it strives to defy.
Which is why I believe that reacting to a particular movement for the heck of it can, at times, be more (cinematically) damaging than not reacting at all. Because in the case of perfectly watchable rom-com palettes like these, it somewhat feels like the writers – in pursuit of anti-Trump wholesomeness – are the ones setting us up so that they get a longer creative rope. It’s calculative matchmaking, but not entirely genuine. Consequentially, the narrative appears more custom-made than it already is. Then again, I can see myself re-watching this on a rainy Sunday evening on my couch in 2028 and marveling at how double Oscar winner and UN ambassador Zoey Deutch was once upon a time such an affable young heroine.