The romantic comedy gets a bad rap for being formulaic — but are formulas really that bad? I mean, look at science! In fact, the rom-com formula is one of the most appealing aspects of turning on a rom-com. Isn’t it nice to know that you’re going to get certain things like a meet-cute, a montage, probably Hugh Grant, that moment where they both know they’re MFEO, and a sweeping romantic gesture?
That’s why it was so nice to happen upon Netflix’s latest original, Set It Up. It’s a charming summer rom-com that celebrates charming summer rom-coms. The world was thirsty for a good romantic comedy and Netflix said, “Drink up, my babies!” (Okay, so really it was more like, “We added a movie you might like,” but still.)
Set It Up follows Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), two young, overworked assistants, as they attempt to reclaim their lives by tricking their unhinged bosses Kirsten (Lucy Liu) and Rick (Taye Diggs) into falling in love, so that they’ll have less time to do things like speak to employees through a bullhorn or throw printers at windows. Of course, through all the trickery, Harper and Charlie fall in love. As they should — because Deutch and Powell have insane chemistry and both are charming as hell. (Though, let’s be honest, we all came here for Liu and Diggs, and those two are having the time of their lives.)
But Set It Up is more than just a movie about falling in love — it’s a meta movie that very much understands what genre it is, and pays homage to the ones that came before it both by playing with genre conventions and direct call-outs to the classics. Because finding your true love is a team sport, Vulture went ahead and pulled out the elements of Set It Up that all rom-com fans will be most happy to see.
Set It Up understands and cherishes the screwball-comedy genre.
Set It Up is clearly an homage to classic screwball comedies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, and it certainly did its homework. Screwball comedies typically focus on courtship or marriage plots. If you read the premise above, you know Set It Up has two times the courtship plots. The genre sometimes also touches on the struggle between classes — typically between the two main protagonists — but here, it’s represented in the boss-assistant dynamic.
How about a healthy mix of slapstick comedy and witty repartee? Well, watching Taye Diggs throw printers and stomp on computers while Glen Powell ducks and falls over is delightful. Equally delightful: the banter between Harper and Charlie, about everything from what they want out of their jobs to pizza (ah, if pizza be the food of love …). Speaking of witty repartee, most screwball comedies feature a stubborn, self-assured female protagonist taking part in this fast-paced banter, and Set It Up offers up a great one to add to the pantheon in Deutch’s Harper. She’s not really “self-assured” when it comes to her personal life, but she is the one who believes wholeheartedly in the plan to match Kirsten and Rick up. She remains optimistic without ever being cloying, which is a feat, all while speaking at Katharine Hepburn–level speeds (also a feat). Fingers crossed Deutch continues making romantic comedies, because she is stellar.
Of course, there is one major element to the screwball comedy yet to be mentioned …
Tricks and lies and disguises are the foundation of any good screwball comedy. In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant’s Walter Burns spends the entire time making up lies in order to keep his ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell) from getting remarried. In Bringing Up Baby, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) tricks David Huxley (Cary Grant) into helping her with her pet leopard (!!) and continues to invent reasons to make him stay around, because she’s fallen for the guy. There are more modern versions of rom-coms full of schemes or deceptions that eventually reveal themselves: While You Were Sleeping, French Kiss, Coming to America, to name a few.
Set It Up also name-checks the work its particular scheme (the assistants know all the likes and dislikes of their bosses, so they are the perfect people to secretly help them fall in love with one another) comes from: the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. Of course, Cyrano already got its own modern rom-com remake in 1987’s Roxanne. Protagonists need obstacles on the way to finding one another, so misunderstandings, tricks, and disguises are par for the rom-com course.
It takes place in a very familiar locale.
New York City, baby! A place where hope springs eternal and dreams go to die. New York is a weird place. And you know what? Love is weird, so it all makes sense. A ridiculous number of rom-coms are set in New York: When Harry Met Sally…, You’ve Got Mail, Maid in Manhattan, 27 Dresses, Coming to America, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, 13 Going on 30, Two Weeks Notice, Definitely, Maybe, Just Wright, Enchanted, Splash and that’s just off the top of my head. Even Sleepless in Seattle, which has another city in the title, ends in New York City. Fake New York (and sometimes real New York, I guess) is overflowing with romance. If you’re going to tip your hat to the ones that came before, you have to set your rom-com in NYC. Set It Up doesn’t go to the Empire State Building or anything, but it gives us moments in recognizable locations like Yankees Stadium, the Gansevoort rooftop, the High Line, and Bryant Park.
Set It Up goes to the Rom-Com Career Fair and finds a genre staple.
Harper puts up with Kirsten’s antics, bullhorn in the bullpen and all, because Kirsten Stevens is the best sports journalist there is and Harper wants to write stories just like her. It makes sense that a rom-com paying homage to the genre would give some of its characters this profession, since having a protagonist be a journalist is as innate to romantic comedies as falling in love is. Is there kissing and also talk of making a deadline? Yeah, you’re probably watching a romantic comedy.
The genre was basically born with journalists. It was there in the classics: Clark Gable’s Peter Warne in It Happened One Night, Walter and Hildy in His Girl Friday, and Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) in The Philadelphia Story are all journalists falling in love amid headlines. There’s a whole gang of modern rom-com heroines who are writers, from Annie (Meg Ryan) in Sleepless in Seattle, Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) in Brown Sugar, to Andie (Kate Hudson) in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Hell, Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) even becomes a broadcast journalist on her journey to finding her happy ending. Set It Up gives us the hard-hitting, career-focused version of a journalist in Kirsten, but it also puts a millennial twist on the profession in Harper, who is much more angst and carbs. It’s just a shame that the movie didn’t go all One Fine Day on us and give us the rom-com Holy Grail: a journalist falling for an architect.
You cannot have a romantic comedy without a meet-cute.
And Set It Up knows that. It knows it so well that Harper and Charlie not only have their own meet-cute over late-night delivery for their bosses — which ends, in true rom-com fashion, with both generally annoyed with the other — but they also decide the first step in their plan to hook up their bosses must be a meet-cute.
And there are so many great ones to choose from! There are the simple classics, like Will (Hugh Grant) bumping into Anna (Julia Roberts) and spilling his drink on her in Notting Hill, or Isobel and Alex (Salma Hayek and Matthew Perry) flirting while in line for a bathroom at a dive restaurant in Fools Rush In. You could go screwball, like Susan (Katharine Hepburn) stealing the golf ball and then car of the perpetually exasperated David (Cary Grant) in Bringing Up Baby. Or how about something a little more dangerous and heroic, like Mary (Jennifer Lopez) getting her heel stuck in a manhole cover and being saved by Steve (Matthew McConaughey) in The Wedding Planner? Or you could go full-on bonkers, like how Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) and David (Mark Ruffalo) meet in Just Like Heaven: She’s a ghost haunting his apartment! (See kids, you can find love any time, any place. NEVER GIVE UP.)
Harper and Charlie settle for a meet-cute classic: They enlist the help of creepy elevator operator Tim (played with glee by Tituss Burgess) to make sure Kirsten and Rick get stuck in an elevator together. The plan goes completely off the rails, but it doesn’t matter much — in a meet-cute, it’s all about the impact anyway.
It loves romantic comedies so much, it actually names one of its tropes.
Much like the meet-cute, Harper and Charlie discuss the “And Yet.” The And Yet is the moment in a romantic comedy where a person lays out all the reasons he or she shouldn’t love the other person, but does despite him or herself. For a literary example, think Pride and Prejudice’s Darcy telling Elizabeth Bennet that her family is the pits and she’s too poor, but he is totally in love with her anyway — although that And Yet fails spectacularly. The most famous And Yet, is of course, Harry’s New Year’s Eve speech to Sally, in which he admits that he loves all of her idiosyncrasies that would probably drive most other people crazy. Well, they drive him crazy, too, but he just can’t help himself.
There are lots of speeches like these found in rom-coms, mainly because it’s fun to toss two people together who are complete opposites and see how they swim together. In Set It Up, Harper is concerned that Kirsten and Rick don’t have an And Yet, which doesn’t bode well for their chances of true happiness. It shows up again in the end, as Harper and Charlie knowingly list all the annoying things about the other before going in for a kiss right there in the middle of a New York street. Holy cow, that’s a lot of rom-com-ing.
Yes, there is a point in the movie where there is a dramatic race to get to someone before giving a big speech.
People love running toward love. People feel things and they cannot wait to tell someone — it’s a biological imperative, perhaps. At least that’s what rom-coms would have you think. In rom-coms, people run through airports for love (Jerry Maguire, Love Actually)! People run through the streets of New York for love (When Harry Met Sally…, Two Weeks Notice)! People run onto boats for love (27 Dresses)! People run off of live television shows for love (Someone Like You)! People run through snowy English streets for love (The Holiday)! People run through snowy English streets IN THEIR UNDERWEAR for love (Bridget Jones’s Diary)! And let’s not even get started on people running away from weddings for love.
Set It Up does something a little tricky with this trope. Yes, Charlie races to the airport to stop someone from getting on a plane with a very dramatic speech, but it isn’t Harper. He races there to stop Kirsten from getting on a plane with Rick for their quickie wedding. Rick is an asshole, and she deserves better. He’s doing it for Harper, but she’s not around to witness the good deed. It’s a sneaky way to get another classic rom-com moment in the film without it feeling too predictable. And there’s something weirdly fun about seeing beautiful people out of breath, so it’s a welcome one.
It pays reverence to one of the greatest musical cues in rom-com history.
In any rom-com, The Realization — in which one or both of our protagonists get their heads out of their asses and finally realize they have met their soul mate and something needs to be done about it — is an important moment and should be cherished. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’s character, big bad corporate book superstore owner Joe Fox (F-O-X) is sitting on his father’s boat, having a conversation about how unrealistic it is to think you’re going to find “the one single person who fills your heart with joy,” when suddenly he just knows. He’s found that person! It’s Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan)! Sure, he put her out of business, but they’ve also been carrying on a charming online relationship in which it is very obvious they are crazy about each other. You see the realization on his face and then bam, Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” starts up and he goes to her. I mean, he still has “some tweaking” to do, but it is glorious. For any fan of the movie, that song is forever linked to that moment.
Set It Up doesn’t use the tune in its own Realization moment, but it does use the song during a scene in Harper and Charlie’s courtship, before they even know they are engaging in courtship. While at the rooftop engagement party for Harper’s roommate, Harper and Charlie dance to this song, and soon after, they start to feel feelings. That song in a rom-com means things, and it deserves to be recognized.
Set It Up knows a good sidekick can make a rom-com.
A good rom-com sidekick, whether best friend, roommate, or work colleague, is mainly around so that at a very important point in the movie he or she can tell the protagonist to get a grip and stop being an idiot. They are a compass on the way to true love. The really good ones also make you laugh. Set It Up provides two sidekicks: Pete Davidson plays Charlie’s roommate and offers his buddy some harsh truths about his current girlfriend, but the real winner here is Meredith Hagner as Harper’s roommate Becca. She’s both charming and crude, and although she does her duty as Harper’s Get a Grip friend, and points her to the way of true love, she also seems like she has a life outside of her roommate.
Other memorable rom-com sidekicks would be proud. These include, but are not limited to, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly, Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill, Whoopi Goldberg in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and John Candy in Splash. But let’s be honest, the top-shelf version of the rom-com sidekick is, of course, Rupert Everett as George in My Best Friend’s Wedding and Joan Cusack as Cyn in Working Girl. Do not ask me choose between them, it is impossible.
Maybe this is just because I love talking about Sally Albright, but …
One of Harper’s most charming (and relatable!) quirks is her trick for not starving in NYC while living on an assistant salary. She goes to the local restaurant, fills up on water and free tortilla chips, and then makes up a fake emergency to get out of there before ordering. Basically, Harper is tormenting waiters across NYC because she refuses to order anything, while Sally Albright tormented them by taking a solid 30 minutes to put her order in. Is this done on purpose as yet another rom-com shout-out by Set It Up? Have I seen so many of these movies that I can connect almost anything to something that happens in a romantic comedy? You know what, if it’s the latter, don’t tell me. Rom-com World is warm and wonderful, and I’d like to stay forever. Unless I’m asked to run. I prefer a leisurely walk toward love.