There’s a good reason why falling in love is so popular in the movies – real life romance, lovely though it can be at times (most of the time if you find the “right” person), rarely comes close to the magnificently-confected perfection of the average romantic comedy or rom-com.
The vastness of the gulf between what is and what we dream of becomes most obvious in the better-crafted rom-com where every last aspect of falling gloriously in rosy-hued love is writ large and in colours so glitteringly beguiling that you would have to have a heart of blackened concrete not to be swept in the Cupid-ian machinations.
Example A, in this instance at least, is Set It Up, a Netflix-exclusive release starring Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as two beleaguered personal assistants, Harper Moore and Charlie Young respectively, whose lives are most definitely not their own.
They work seemingly impossible hours with one scene seeing Harper required to wait until midnight at her desk to wake her demanding sports journalist star boss, Kirsten Stevens, from a nap; in another Charlie has to rush across town to meet his boss at an exclusive club, thinking he has one errand to run and then he’s off the clock.
He’s not of course with his boss, Richard “Rick” Otis (Taye Diggs), first wanting not wanting dinner then wanting it and then tossing it away.
It’s not an easy life, and honestly so monstrously-caricatured are Kirsten and Rick that you wonder how either Charlie or Harper haven’t taken out a contract on their boss’s life or at the very least resigned and gone to join a peaceful hippie commune somewhere.
Of course, the mercurial nastiness of both bosses, a lawsuit waiting to happen in anyone’s language, is all in service of a plot that is basically a paint-by-numbers rom-com narrative, as are Harper and Charlie’s lives who, it is clear, from the moment they clash over a delivery meal in the lobby, are destined to be A Thing.
What makes Set It Up a cut well above your average rom-com is that for all the been-there-done-that narrative functionality, and there’s plenty of slavish adherence to convention, it manages to take its tropes and do something magically delightful with them.
So well-executed is Set It Up, so adroitly does it summon the kind of romance we all wish for ourselves, naturally set in either New York or Paris with a large budget and elastic days that dare 24/7 normalcy to constrain them, that it’s well nigh impossible to resist being swept up in its abundant charms.
Helping matters considerably are Deutch and Powell who enjoy chemistry so perfectly-beguiling and enchanting to watch that it reminds you of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.
There is an ease and joyfulness, even in those scenes where the idea of freedom from the tyranny of their bosses and a return to some sort of personal autonomy seems like an impossible pipe dream, that powers the film, with Deutch delivering her snappy oneliners with the kind of comedic energy that makes you smile every time, and Powell displaying the kind of suck-it-up vulnerability that is appealing because it hints at the fact that he’s not really such a corporate sell-out after all.
So natural and unaffected is their rapport that you buy all kinds of narrative twists-and-turns that otherwise wouldn’t, and probably still don’t when objectively examined, make sense such as the time, nearing the final act, when Harper and Charlie decide to go to the engagement party of Harper roommate Becca (Meredith Hagner) despite the fact that Charlie has a girlfriend Suze (Joan Smalls) with whom he is supposed to be hanging out and who has been oft-neglected up to this point by her boyfriend’s insane schedule.
Naturally, Suze is nice enough but not a fit for Charlie not really and so when they decide to go to the party and then blow off the party after a short time to eat pizza and act goofily cute together, an act which might seem a little over the top given their current circumstances, you totally go with it.
How could you not? Harper and Charlie are a delight and as they plan for their bosses to fall in love and get off their backs for a while – yeah it’s kinda of selfish and eventually messy but honestly if you have managers like that, you’d throw the ethics out with the spurned dinner too – you totally root for them to succeed so they can have their lives back, preferably with each other.
Set It Up manages to feel both aspirationally blue sky-fabulous and grounded all at once, a mesmerisingly-good mix that you can likely attribute to the fact that two women wrote and directed the film.
The screenplay by Katie Silberman and direction by Claire Scanlon radiate the sense that life can be remorsely-demanding and full of all kinds of moral and ethical compromises – refreshingly some of the questionable tactics pursued by Harper and Charlie are called out and Rick and Kirsten are not complete ogre archetypes – but there is the capacity for something wonderful to happen too.
It’s this one eye on what is and the other on what we’d like to be that comes from an ability to see the full emotional panoply of life in all its gloriously contradictory complexity that defines Set It Up as something special, and at the risk of sounded misandristic, is something that women writer and directors such as Scanlon and Silberman, and the late great Nora Ephron seem to capture more expansively and fulsomely than men.
Whatever the drivers of its rom-com perfection, Set It Up is one of those films that sweeps you up in its hastily-constructed glittering universe so completely and unashamedly that its tropes and cliches feel organically real and possible rather than contrived and silly, marking it as an exemplar of its genre, that rare re-user of the conventions of its cinematic type, and let’s face it, all rom-coms are to some degree, that feels fresh, original and most of all transportively and reality-defying romantic.
Best of all, for all its otherworldly rom-com-ness, it feels weirdly and appealing possible, which for all of us, in love or otherwise, is probably its greatest gift of all.