set it up return of the rom com
Please, Don’t Let ‘Set It Up’ Be the Future of Rom-Coms
08.08.18

Everyone’s talking about Netflix’s newest romantic comedy, Set It Up. Some are heralding it as the return of the romantic comedy. It’s hard to find a negative review, which is why I’ve spent the 24 hours since I saw it wondering if I watched a different movie. I understand the appeal of its unapologetic cheerfulness, even if it didn’t speak to me specifically, but I’m struggling to wrap my head around the idea that it somehow moves the rom-com needle, as so many are claiming it does. If this is progress, I think we need to expect more.

Admittedly, the last romantic comedy I remember being excited to see was Obvious Child, which came out in 2014. Before that, it was Easy A, in 2010. There was a time though — you could say my entire adolescence — when rom-coms were my drug of choice. I owned and watched How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Two Weeks Notice, Notting Hill, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, You’ve Got Mail, 50 First Dates, The Wedding Planner and most of their generational counterparts enough times to memorize each of their male protagonist’s romantic speeches, which usually appear about 95 percent of the way through the film, always to win back the girl. Sometimes I started them over immediately after the credits rolled, just to rewatch them with the director’s commentary. (R.I.P. DVD extras.) It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the late-’90s-early-aughts rom-com boom played a large role in shaping how my younger self saw the adult world. It informed how I identified myself, who I wanted to be when I grew up, how I flirted. I’d resent that if I hadn’t been such a willing participant.

While it’s true that even commercially successful rom-coms have rarely received critical acclaim, there was a time when the genre carried a certain cultural cachet and was capable of making A-list stars out of B-list actors, shaping romantic attitudes and generally steering the zeitgeist. That was over a decade ago. In the years since, the original mid-budget rom-com has been pushed out by multi-hundred-million-dollar extended-universe sequels and reboots and remakes. But it’s not just about money — tastes have changed, too. Some blame Hollywood’s disinterest in stories about women (or Katherine Heigl, generally); others blame a lack of depth and nuance. Regardless, the classic rom-com formula that guaranteed success in the early aughts came to look and feel old-fashioned, both in its technical execution and especially in the tropes it traded in.

But in the past couple years, rom-coms have regained some of their lost footing in popular culture, with people like Emily Nussbaum, Mindy Kaling and Chrissy Teigen defending the genre as a valid art form. At the forefront of this neo-rom-com revolution, as you might expect, is Netflix. According to IndieWire, Set It Up, which stars Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs, is the seventh rom-com the media service-cum-production studio has put out in 2018. And for some reason, it hit a feel-good nerve the others didn’t.

Set It Up is remarkably refreshing,” writes Elena Nicolaou for Refinery29. “The movie marks the first time the classic rom-com format has been shaped around our particular moment in history, and made specific to the millennial experience.”

“This film has it all — at least by the standards of a fun, disposable romantic comedy, the likes of which Hollywood rarely bothers to release anymore,” writes David Sims for The Atlantic. “Set It Up might just feel like a fluffy rom-com, but it could also be the start of a genuine realignment within the industry.”

“It’s not perfect, certainly, but it’s an emotional support blanket of a film, an old-fashioned rom-com led by stars with palpitating chemistry. I see myself putting it on every so often, scanning to hit my favorite scenes,” writes Esther Zuckerman for Thrillest.

My Set It Up movie-watching experience more closely resembled a vigorous exercise class than an emotionally supportive snuggle. As in, my cohorts spent the duration groaning or calling it quits, while my sister, who suggested it, apologized profusely for what she’d done. She swore she saw positive reviews, but maybe they’d been satires? Turns out they were not, but the joke was still on us.

Written by Katie Silberman and directed by Claire Scanlon, Set It Up follows Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glenn Powell), two overworked assistants who work for high-powered, high-maintenance bosses: an ESPN journalist named Kirsten (Lucy Liu) and a venture capital executive named Rick (Taye Diggs). When Harper and Charlie meet-cute in the lobby of the New York high-rise building they all work in, they conspire to set up Kirsten and Rick in the hopes that love might make their bosses less ambitious and thus free up their schedules.

The story is cheesy, full of plotholes, and generally predictable, but that’s to be expected in a rom-com. In fact, people who know the genre better than I do have broken down exactly why Set It Up lives up to its predecessors so successfully. What confounds me most are the myriad claims that Set It Up retains what’s great about the classic rom-com, nixes the more offensive qualities and updates it for today. With all due respect, I do not agree.

To the movie’s credit, it is distinct from the rom-coms of the aughts in a few ways. For one, it is technically more racially diverse than its forbearers, with Liu and Diggs in two of the four lead roles. It also makes an attempt at subverting gender stereotypes by casting a man and woman as a cowering assistant and intimidating boss, respectively. Unfortunately, the execution of these decisions ultimately reveals more about the creators’ awareness of how to check boxes than actually be progressive. The story and characters are just a groan-inducing as, say, those in The Wedding Planner, albeit more unlikeable, in my opinion.

Take the movie’s handling of race. Set It Up may star Liu and Diggs — for which it’s been applauded — but race is never addressed as a part of the modern experience, and the story is actually about their two assistants, played by white actors Deutch and Powell, whose personalities are given more attention and nuance. Casting people of color is a good first step, but it’s worth remembering that representation in movies is also about giving those characters nuance, telling their stories and placing their stories in a world where race exists — especially if it’s set in modern-day New York City. It’s hard to imagine that ever being done well as long as the vast majority of movies continue to be written, cast and directed by white people, as Set It Up was.

Sexism and gender, however, is addressed, at least in small moments — possibly the result of the film being written and directed by women. Unfortunately, this doesn’t guarantee success either. As Glenn Kenny wrote for The New York Times in his review of the movie, “[T]he expectation that a female-written, female-directed effort would yield something refreshingly different is scotched within the first few minutes.” The female characters mostly fall flat. Harper is rom-com-recognizable in that she’s beautiful but doesn’t know it, lives in a huge apartment but is an assistant, loves pizza more than her friends, and loves sports. She’s a classic Gone Girl-style “cool girl.” Kirsten is a frigid, sexless career woman who, despite knowing how to handle herself professionally, is totally clueless about dating. And then there’s Charlie’s girlfriend: a beautiful model who has no personality. None of it makes me angry; it just makes me yawn. But my ears perk when someone calls the movie “specific to the millennial experience.”

Not every piece of media has to be seamless and say something meaningful; some might argue rom-coms are best when they do neither. But shows like Insecure and Dear White People and movies like The Big Sick and Bridesmaids prove that the marriage of romance and comedy can be delightful, digestible and feel distinctly new, even if it isn’t always perfect or realistic. To me, modernizing the genre has less to do with making the white female protagonist like sports and have career aspirations (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days did both in 2003) and more to do with telling stories we haven’t heard before through characters we haven’t met before.

Maybe rom-coms just want to be fun popcorn flicks and I’ve simply lost my taste for them. And that’s fine! I’m happy to skip the next one. But when they’re reviewed as beacons of progress or watched en masse and become cultural touchstones, like Set It Up has, I think it’s worth asking if our expectations are high enough.

Feature photo via Netflix.

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