We need to talk about Set It Up. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. If you would have shown me a list of 200 movies set for release in 2018, I would have complained that I don’t like reading long lists. After that, I would have blatantly disregarded the Netflix rom-com starring Zoey Deutch and that guy that played John Glenn in Hidden Figures. In theory, it’s the kind of flick that languishes in obscurity. A fleeting summer after-after-after-thought compared to Skyscraper or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or even Tag.
And yet, more of my friends have raved about Set It Up than all those would-be blockbusters combined. Which means . . . . very little. I don’t trust those non-discernable lunatics. They’re the same people that insisted The Greatest Showman was superior to La La Land. So I turned to a curated outlet that holds special meaning: Social media. Turns out that Set It Up is one of Netflix’s most popular original titles. A Vanity Fair writer did a think piece on it. Done. I finally queued it up a few nights ago and gave it a watch. Now I understand the appeal: Set It Up is the best worst rom-com ever. Huzzah.
Think cotton candy with a super-sweet story to match its delicious empty calories. Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell play overworked, underpaid assistants in gleaming New York City. She toils under a renowned sports writer (Lucy Liu). He’s on staff at a place I don’t remember except that his superior is played by Taye Diggs. Yah, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi piece this is not. After a charming Meet Cute in the building, the underlings decide to fix up their bosses. Their rationale? If these ultra-driven wolves become preoccupied with each other and fall in love, the assistants will be able to have a life. Freedom! And, hey now spoiler alert, the assistants actually fall for each other in the process. The concept is such a breezy no-brainer that I’m mad I didn’t come up with it myself and pitch it to an agent. New York City rent ain’t cheap, friends.
Zoey, the daughter of actrress Lea Thompson and Pretty in Pink director Howard Deutch, is only 23 years old but carries herself with the maturity and moxie of a full-blown millennial. She’s quite the foible for Powell, who turns 30 in October. They’ve denied dating IRL but I’m not buying what they and their PR team are selling. Their repartee is more rat-tat-tat than anything you could ever dish to the cute coworker. Mind you, I can’t quote any of their dialogue verbatim. Their interplay lacks Nora Ephron-like witticisms and key observances about the opposite sex. We just know they are MFEO — that’s Sleepless in Seattle-speak for Made For Each Other — and that knowledge alone is enough to make audiences happy.
Whatever, we’re not hear for the main stars anyway. Liu and Diggs have been famous since Deutch and Powell were in grade school. They are solidly beloved B-list stars and I mean that in the sincerest way. We will watch them in anything, including and especially Elementary and Private Practice, respectively. They’re sexy and funny. It’s about time these two hooked it up. And they do. Of course they do. And, you’ll be shocked — shocked! — to learn that the big plan doesn’t go as planned.
Indeed, the movie’s utter predictability is its secret sauce. This is a movie acutely self-aware of its place in the rom-com genre. Consider: Diggs and Liu both end up at a baseball game, and their assistants ensure that they’re captured on the Kiss-Cam Jumbotron so they can lock lips. The song blaring in the stadium: “The Power of Love.” From Back to the Future. Which starred Lea Thompson. Zoey’s mom. That’s not a coincidence. Everyone in Set It Up knows they’re in a formulaic rom-com. Nothing they do is particularly edgy or fresh. But damn if they don’t look good in the process. Even the NYC backdrop, complete with shiny establishing shots of all the bridges and skyscrapers, reeks of 2003. You know, back before The Apprentice was even on the NBC Thursday night lineup.
If Set It Up had a wide-release in theaters, it surely would have landed in sixth place on opening weekend with a $4.3 million box office. Tops. I worship at the altar of romantic comedies, and I’m telling you that I would have squirmed in my seat and subtly checking the Detroit Tigers baseball score on my iPhone about 50 minutes into the running time. Maybe 2.5 stars out of 4. But in a living room? You can make dinner, check email, drink vino, fold laundry, scroll Instagram, tuck in the kids, call your parents, talk to your dog in a baby voice while Set It Up is playing in the living room and miss absolutely nothing. Or you could sprawl on the couch and just let your eyes glaze over. Now that is impressive. The Netflix platform is an inevitable, if inspired, decision. And the proof lies in its fresh Rotten Tomatoes score. I suspect critics were pleasantly surprised that Set It Up can even exist — in between Wild, Wild Country and 13 Reasons Why, no less.
Twenty five summers ago, you could go to the Cineplex and choose among Jurassic Park, The Firm, In the Line of Fire, The Fugitive — and Sleepless in Seattle. All hits. Romantic comedies could play alongside the Big Boys. But now the genre has all been phased out. Rom-coms don’t make a lot of money overseas and don’t reach a big audience and aren’t fit for franchises, blah blah. And the ones that do slip through the cracks probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day (sighs for Home Again). Set It Up isn’t the brightest hope for the rom-com future, but at least it’s bright. The world is a scary place these days. Revel in the comforting escapism. After all, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days isn’t going anywhere.
Set It Up is now available to stream on Netflix
Also published on Medium.