‘Set It Up’ Raises the Bar for Netflix Rom-Coms
In Netflix's Set It Up, Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are the overworked and underpaid assistants for two New York big shots, Kirsten Stevens (Lucy Liu) and Rick Otis (Taye Diggs). After a cute run-in typical of all rom-coms, Harper and Charlie decide to set their two bosses up with each other so that they’ll have more free time to pursue their own interests.
The plot of the movie progresses exactly as you would expect it to, and it winds up in a place that surprises no one who’s watching it. It’s not innovative or unique, but it doesn’t have to be.
(For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie yet and would like to retain a modicum of suspense, I will put a spoiler warning in place for the rest of this review.)
Netflix original movies are known for being cheesy, tropey, borderline terrible but enjoyable if you don’t think too much about it. I laughed my way through Ibiza, a similarly predictable rom-com, just a couple of weeks ago.
What makes Set It Up different? Although predictable, the movie was enjoyable without being cringy, and made me laugh without hiding my face. And the difference, I think, is that the characters felt real in a way that is rare for movies of this subgenre; because their motivations didn’t feel contrived (except for possibly the first gasp of “We should set our bosses up!”), this movie manages to avoid feeling like each interaction is a forced set up to get to the eventual end goal. (A bit ironic, maybe, given the movie’s title.)
Harper is a sports fanatic who wants nothing more than write an article on the “gerilympics” (an events competition for older athletes) and have it be approved and published by her boss, but due to her hectic work schedule, she never has the time to focus on it. And it’s not just the opportunity for writing that Harper is missing; when her roommate and best friend, Becca, gets engaged, Harper realizes that her love life has long fallen by the wayside, as well.
Even when Harper does get some time to herself after she and Charlie set their plan in motion, these problems don’t magically resolve themselves. Harper still doesn’t sit down to write her article, and is forced to realize that she’s avoiding the act of writing because she’s terrified she’ll be bad at it. (Claiming that you would write if you just had time, and then finding more important things to do and making excuses not to write even when you do have time is something that rings particularly true with me at the moment.) And although Harper does begin dating someone (whom she fondly refers to as “Golf Guy”, since they went mini-golfing on their first date), he eventually ends up ghosting her and she ends up back where she started.
And what about Charlie? 28 years old, Charlie has been Rick’s assistant for three years and can’t bear the thought of quitting because of how far it would set him back. He has a younger, model girlfriend who treats him pretty terribly but who he sticks with because...well, she’s a model. Charlie has an image of how he wants his life to be, and he doesn’t take into account the smaller things, like how that actually makes him feel: he wants nothing more than to be promoted at his job, even though he doesn’t like it that much; and he stays with Suzie even though she doesn’t really make him happy.
Even of the two horrible bosses, at least one of them is a dynamic character, not just a paper thin stand-in: although Kirsten works Harper to the bone, it’s made clear that Harper still looks up to, respects, and even idolizes her boss a great deal. As we learn more about Kirsten, some of her earlier, cold decisions begin to make sense, like her cancelling appearances at the baby showers of her friends not because she’s too busy to go, but because she feels like she hasn’t moved forward in life and has nothing new to share. She’s incredibly smart, sharp, hardworking, and refuses to diminish herself for a man — which is why when she finds someone who seemingly appreciates all those things about her, she falls in love with him.
(Rick, on the other hand, is approximately just as unapologetically terrible as he was first made out to be, but one out of two isn’t a bad ratio for movies like this.)
The friendship that blooms between Charlie and Harper as they scheme about their bosses is beautiful and natural — perhaps even more so because, at first, neither of them see the other as anything but a friend. Harper is supportive of Charlie’s relationship with Suzie (although, granted, she hasn’t met her yet), and Charlie gives Harper advice when it comes to dating Golf Guy. It’s not until they end up slow dancing together at Becca’s engagement party (to Romeo And Juliet by the Dire Straits, one of my favourite songs) and later share a pizza at the top of a fire escape that they realize there might be something more between them.
“You like someone because, but you love them despite,” Becca says at her engagement party, which is true. Although there are things about each other that they don’t like, there is one big “and yet” for Charlie and Harper that make all of those little things meaningless: they make each other better.
Charlie is the one who forces Harper to face her fear of writing; he’s the one who calls her out (truthfully, because he’s angry at her) that she hasn’t been using her newfound freetime to write like she said she would because she thinks she’ll be bad at it. He’s right, and Harper knows he’s right. After she gets fired for confessing to Kirsten how they’d been orchestrating her love life, Harper finally sits down to write the article she’s been promising herself for years that she’d write. And when Kirsten begs for Harper to come back to work she declines, understanding that if she wants to be serious about writing, she needs to make time for it.
As for Charlie, Harper is the one who makes him realize that life is about more than image. Harper is vivacious; she uses too many exclamation marks; she has no interest in playing hard to get, and she’s unapologetically herself. It takes him some time, but after their fight, Charlie finally recognizes that he doesn’t actually like many aspects of his current life: his relationship with Suzie has no actual depth to it, and the prospect of a promotion isn’t worth potentially ruining someone else’s life, especially not for a job he doesn’t enjoy.
Realizing that he has to tell Kirsten the truth about Rick before they get married, Charlie calls Harper and asks her to meet him at the airport, but he fully intends on going through with his plan whether she shows up or not; and Harper ignores his call because she’s too busy writing, like he’d encouraged her to do.
When Charlie makes his big speech at the airport about how Kirsten deserves a better man than Rick, I, like him, half-expected Harper to show up and witness his change of heart. But she doesn’t, and ultimately, I’m glad; because this moment wasn’t about Charlie proving himself worthy of Harper, it was about proving himself to himself. Harper may have been the catalyst that pushed him towards change, but he made the decision to change on his own. Not to hopefully win her over, but to better his own life.
Even at the end, when Charlie and Harper run into each other, it’s not because he’d been looking for her, it’s because Kirsten took the initiative to take a page out of their book and set them up.
I did have two minor qualms with how the ending played out: Rick cheating on Kirsten (with his ex-wife, no less) was never even brought up as one of the reasons why Kirsten should leave him, and I think she has the right to know (although I suppose the argument could be made that not telling her is kinder); and Harper equating Charlie’s spineless lack of conscience with some of his more minor quirks. Charlie did recognize his mistake and ultimately made the right choice and I do think he deserved to be forgiven, but I also think Harper should have asked for more of an explanation.
The movie ends with Charlie as a 28-year-old temp (lower on the totem pole than assistant) and Harper as an unemployed aspiring writer, but they have both found a happiness they were lacking at the start of the film, quite apart from finding each other. Perhaps one of the reasons I like this movie more than I like most rom-coms is because, although it still ended with a kiss, its overarching message was something bigger: change is scary, starting over is scary, but if you know what makes you happy, you should do what you can to pursue it.
If you end up falling in love...well, that’s just a bonus.