Stylist’s editorial assistant Moya Lothian-McLean argues that the outpouring of love for Set It Up reflects a new demand for respectful rom-coms. Spoilers ahead.
Some personal news: I’ve decided to consciously recouple with the rom-com. Despite several rough years in which we both saw other people – I dabbled in documentary films while the rom-com tried to make Tom Hardy and Chris Pine fight each other over Reese Witherspoon – we’re now on our way to rebuilding those glory days of yore. The sparring flirtation of Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You. The sweet realism of Emily Blunt and Jason Segel’s relationship in The Five Year Engagement. A mutual pact to delete What’s Your Number from our memory banks forever.
The catalyst for this sudden reunion after such a bitter break up (the last straw was 2010’s Leap Year, a film so bad that even its lead actor admitted he only took on the project so he could stay near his newborn daughter) was the appearance of a brand new Netflix Original film over the weekend.
Set It Up stars Glenn Powell (the guy from that movie… you know; that guy?) and Zoey Deutch (Ed Sheeran’s chalet girl beau in the Perfect music video) as two put-upon employees who scheme to set-up their workaholic bosses in order to carve out some kind of healthy work/life balance. But – surprise! – they accidentally end up falling in like instead. The premise isn’t exactly original but then we don’t watch rom-coms for originality. Instead it’s the tiny tweaks Netflix have made to repurpose the genre for a 2018 audience that’s prompted a widespread outpouring of love for the film.
“OH MY GOD IT WAS EVERYTHING I WANT IN A ROM-COM. IT’S PERFECT. I WOULDN’T CHANGE A THING. THANK YOU, NETFLIX” one Twitter user wrote, calmly.
“I just watched Set It Up,” read another tweeted review. “You know it’s a good rom-com when you’re yelling at your TV while eating a pint of ice cream.”
Set It Up currently boasts a 93% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes which isn’t the be-all and end-all of measuring cinematic value, except when we agree with the rating, like in this instance. It is – as they say in Hollywood – a hit.
The unique alchemy of Set It Up is that it has respect for both the genre of rom-coms and the majority-female audience who watch them. The film is peppered with homages, in-jokes and meta-acknowledgements of the tropes that have become beloved – and entrenched – within rom-coms over the years. At one point, Charlie and Harper discuss generating an artificial ‘meet-cute’ for their bosses, oblivious to the fact their own introduction was a perfect example of the device: coming face-to-face in their workplace lobby as they haggle over one takeaway that has to feed two bosses.
There’s also the romantic obstacle of Charlie’s uninterested girlfriend to be disposed of, plus a sardonic roommate (played by Ariana Grande’s fiancée Pete Davidson) whose approval marks Harper as The Chosen One and a big fight that requires an equally big gesture to overcome. Set It Up packs in the necessary rom-com cliches of slow dancing, late-night almost-dates (here involving drunk pizza) and rapid-fire repartee volleyed back and forth between the two leads as sparks fly. The cherry on top is a last-minute dash to the airport to stop a misguided elopement.
But these winks are cleverly designed to move the rom-com format forward while simultaneously acknowledging its checkered past. The airport dash is performed by Charlie, to prevent Harper’s high-powered journalist boss, played by Lucy Liu, from marrying Taye Diggs’ cheating money-man. Harper isn’t even present.
The requisite big fight – which must be done because when did the course of true love ever run smooth? – savvily takes place while Charlie and Harper are picking out engagement rings… for other people. The consequences of it aren’t brushed tidily away at the coda (in fact, Harper explicitly tells Charlie he has no moral backbone. She does still kiss him though). And Charlie’s declaration of love is actually a far more authentic admission that he “really, really, really likes” Harper. The L-word isn’t ever uttered. In Set It Up, the relationship that moves at warp-speed towards a hasty engagement falls apart by the end. Love is patient in this movie.
Where Set It Up succeeds is balancing the old and the new. The film recognises that rom-coms, despite an media-wide moratorium on them, aren’t dead. The target audience is still there, patiently waiting to watch a satisfying story of two attractive people meeting, hating each other and slowly realising how fine the line between loathe and love is over the course of 90 minutes.
What has changed since the early Noughties – when rom-coms would regularly make appearances in the top 10 grossing movies of the year – is the expectation of what that should look like.
This may come as a shock: turns out women don’t want to watch films where female characters are treated with disdain, side-lined, or generally realised as 2-D. A study this year found rom-coms were the least favoured film-genre among women aged 18-54 and 82% of respondents to the same survery reported they’re more inclined to see a film if it features ‘dynamic’ female characters. A further 57% said they preferred female-driven stories to be told be female filmmakers (incidentally, the director of Set It Up is Claire Scanlon).
Historically, rom-coms have not treated their intended audience well. By turns women are manipulated (Wedding Crashers, Hitch, Shallow Hal, What a Girl Wants), treated as an alien species to be studied and conquered (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) and portrayed as lonely losers whose successes pale into insignificance without a man by their side (if I list them, we’ll be here all day).
Women are stalked and told it’s “flattering.” Heroines are thrown into emotional turmoil then quickly forced to forgive wayward heroes so everything can be wrapped up with a neat bow. There’s even surreal incidences of highly improbable conversions from lesbianism in order for a male protagonist to get his dream girl.
And that’s not taking into account the experiences of the women we’re not meant to be rooting for. The evil and/or psychotic former girlfriend who has to be dumped in order for a man to find true love. The side-lined best friend. The sad, divorced mother who finds a new lease of life through some ooo-er Matron tantric sex. The promiscuous roommate who only exists as a salacious foil to the wholesome heroine. A wildly confident character who happens to be overweight and it’s funny! Because she’s fat!
In 2018, women are viewing films through a fourth-wave feminist lens. If your husband’s best friend ruins your wedding video with his creepy fixation on you or interrupts your quiet Friday movie-night in with a declaration of love on some A3 card, it’s not love, actually. It’s Grade A stalking.
Rom-coms are romantic fantasy yes, but this kind of fantasy requires at least a smidgen of recognisable real world grounding in order for audiences to buy into it. The rom-com’s currency is its tangibility. Imagine, we think, if this happened to us. How romantic. And in the wake of feminism hitting the mainstream, women have new stipulations about what exactly makes a fantasy appealing for us.
We don’t want to watch a woman making herself smaller for a man who can’t handle her at full blaze or sit through a story where some man-baby is ‘tamed’ in order to be ready for an adult relationship. No longer is it a satisfying plot point to portray a woman’s happiness as dependent on having a partner, something Set It Up neatly avoids by depicting the success of Lucy Liu’s character as a powerfully positive quality, rather than a hindrance preventing her from finding love.
What we want, what we’ve always wanted, is just an unfussy story about two people who are very good at witty banter and even better at accidentally falling in love despite themselves. It doesn’t even have to – shock – centre on a male/female pairing anymore.
The most enduring and classic rom-coms – When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill, Pretty Woman – were certainly flawed (you will be saved from sex work by a knight in a tailored gabardine suit? Cool) but at their heart they featured sparky, vibrant women who became more than the tropes that they were designed to fit into. They felt real and the men they ended up with were, at the very least, equals who didn’t put them through the mill of romantic torment.
That’s what Set It Up nails and why it’s struck such a chord: it’s a sweet, frothy film about two young people that doesn’t rely on lazy outdated stereotypes to sell itself. And that’s what makes it timeless.