At the start of 2018, Netflix’s original-film department seemed to swerve in terms of tone. No longer was the company focusing on the sorts of award-friendly prestige projects that had defined its entrance into the market (titles like Beasts of No Nation, First They Killed My Father, and Mudbound). Instead, it started buying the rights to mid-budget sci-fi and horror movies like The Cloverfield Paradox, Mute, and Annihilation (which Netflix distributed internationally). Suddenly, browsing Netflix movies felt like taking a trip back to a 1990s Blockbuster, stuffed with easy-to-watch popcorn fare. So it’s perhaps little surprise that the next genre the company is seeking to revive is the rom-com—and with Set It Up, released this month, Netflix has already found its first hit.
The feature debut of Claire Scanlon (who has directed episodes for TV shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) is a delicious throwback from top to bottom. There’s that bland, forgettable, inoffensive title. Then there’s the chintzy poster, all smiling movie-star faces looking in every single direction. Finally, behold the tagline, a pun so cringe-inducing it’s almost admirable: “Finding love takes some assistants.” Love! Assistants! Wordplay! This film has it all—at least by the standards of a fun, disposable romantic comedy, the likes of which Hollywood rarely bothers to release anymore.
The most successful rom-com of last year was The Big Sick, a critically acclaimed Sundance indie that was the 65th-highest-grossing film of 2017. For the most part, the genre has been relegated to television. To make a romantic studio comedy, you often need to introduce gimmicky action elements, like the Amy Schumer film Snatched; even Judd Apatow, who helped revive the genre in the 2000s, has talked about how difficult it is to produce comedies in general now. But the ’90s were a golden age, and movies like My Best Friend’s Wedding, Jerry Maguire, Sleepless in Seattle, and Pretty Woman were among the biggest hits of their respective years.
Set It Up feels like a return to that era, when smaller-scale star vehicles like Picture Perfect, You’ve Got Mail, One Fine Day, and While You Were Sleeping were regular fixtures at the multiplex. At the heart of these movies is, typically, a story contrivance, often involving a character’s false identity or a secret scheme that gets discovered by the end of the second act. So Set It Up sees two weary assistants, Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), hatch a plot to make their workaholic bosses, Kirsten (Lucy Liu) and Rick (Taye Diggs), fall in love with each other.
Harper and Charlie, who work 16-hour days and barely have time for their own social lives, are looking to ease the burden on themselves by sneakily nudging Kirsten and Rick together. The result, of course, is that Harper and Charlie begin to fall for each other. The entire film is joyously bubbly, light on conflict, and heavy on flirty banter. Deutch and Powell both emerged with breakout performances in Richard Linklater’s 2016 college comedy Everybody Wants Some!!; this is the first time either of them has gotten a real chance to show off their movie-star chops.
The production values of Set It Up (outside of some spiffy-looking New York City location shooting) are unimpressive. Its musical score is obnoxiously chirpy and bouncy, and it’s far too reliant on montages to goose the story along. Who cares! The joy of the romantic comedy lies less in its mise en scène, and more in its witty repartee and character chemistry, which Set It Up is loaded with. The will-they-won’t-they tension is enough for the movie to power through the silliest moments (there’s also a particularly sleepy supporting performance from Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson that falls flat).
In short, it’s a charming watch and, more importantly, it’s the kind of film studios simply aren’t offering audiences today. I remain unconvinced that Netflix is going to be able to break into the world of big-budget, widescreen movie-making; no matter how massive our TVs get, they’ll always fail to truly compete with the theater experience. But as long as Netflix continues to insist on its strategy of releasing films online the same day they’re out in cinemas, the company would do well to satisfy needs that studios are otherwise ignoring. Set It Up might just feel like a fluffy rom-com, but it could also be the start of a genuine realignment within the industry.