By Andrea Thompson
I had high hopes for the Netflix film “Set It Up,” which looked like a delightful romantic comedy that was just as invested in the heroine's career as it was in her love life, which of course she and her requisite male lead insisted on complicating. Instead, it's an example of how women can also get invested in sexism if it gives them a kind status that can result from buying into it. After all, when you are able to gain quite a bit of social cache by following the rules, you're less likely to advocate for those rules to be broken.
Rom-coms are tricky anyways. They depend more on conventions than other genres, which means there's little chance for suprises. They also obviously depend on romance, and that said romance will run into some obstacles before the two leads realize what everyone – from the people around them to any audience who happens to be watching – around them already knows. They are meant to be together!
Forestalling such an obvious truth is tricky, and that's why so many rom-coms buy into pernicious stereotypes, not only about love, but about gender and the so-called differences between them. It's a lazy way to create conflict when there's a very real danger of not there not being enough of it. “Set It Up” doesn't so much buy into traditional mores as the new ones which sprung up from the old, and are about as damaging. The fact that it's written and directed by women adds insult to injury.
First, the premise. It's actually an interesting one, as Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are long-suffering, overworked assistants to demanding, workaholic bosses. It's strongly indicated that Charlie's boss Rick (Taye Diggs) is a venture capitalist, but it's not made quite clear aside from the fact that Rick's job involves a whole lot of money. Harper's boss Kirsten (Lucy Liu) is the formidable head of a sports journalism site that Harper longs to be published on.
Harper and Charlie work in the same building and are at work before everyone , which is how they happen to meet, and Charlie quickly establishes his jerk bonafides. Harper is just barely able to persuade him to split the food that she ordered, but Charlie is quick to take for his own boss since Harper doesn't have the cash required. After Harper and Charlie meet up again and swap horror stories, as well as their complete lack of personal lives, they start to consider how their jobs would get a lot less demanding if their bosses Rick and Kirsten were seeing each other. And since Harper and Charlie control their schedules and nearly everything else in their lives, they can actually arrange this.
So Harper and Charlie decide to do just that. They get Kirsten and Rick trapped in an elevator together, only for that to go hilariously awry when a claustrophic deliverman gets trapped in there with them. Their second meeting, where Harper and Charlie arrange for them to sit together at a baseball game, goes much better, and Kirsten and Rick actually start dating, freeing up their assistants' time.
It's when this relationship starts that “Set It Up” gets problematic. Or rather, its leads prove to be as shallow as much of the corporate world the movie tries to criticize. Much of Kirsten's personality, time, and workaholic tendencies are assumed to revolve around the fact that she's not only a single woman of a certain age, but a woman sans children. Kirsten mentions that a lot of men proposed to her in her 20s, as if male attention suddenly dries up when you hit 30. Near the end of the film, she tells Harper, “Men don't want to date you when you're beating you to a story. But I've met someone who wants me to be strong, and he likes that I'm successful. I mean, he's a goddamn unicorn!” In the world of “Set It Up,” men who date women their own age aren't just rare, those who are attracted to women with power are apparently almost nonexistent.
Needless to say, Rick's behavior doesn't need to be similarly explained. He's barely humanized at all, and the moie seems just fine with this. While dressing down Charlie, Harper even says that he can be better, and that Rick can't help being an asshole. Really? Rick doesn't have the capacity to be a better person, or even the free will to do so? It's a rather disturbing justification of male behavior.
At least the movie knows where to draw the line. Harper and Charlie may be desperate enough to arrange for Kirsten to have a bikini wax once they learn that Rick is completely turned off by hair, but at least Harper isn't willing to hide Rick's plan to continually cheat on Kirsten with his ex-wife, even after he decides to marry Kirsten. Shockingly, Charlie is at first willing to in order to gain a promotion, and thus financial security from Rick, but his eventual decision to run to the airport to break up a romance is at least a nice twist on rom-com conventions.
Then again, Harper and Charlie don't seem much worth investing in either. Charlie is continually a jerk to her, and has a habit of, among other things, hanging up on her when they're in the middle of a conversation. Harper also comes off as little more than a Cool Girl cliché. She's into sports in a way only unrealistic female characters are: when it's convenient. And of course, she totally goes crazy on unhealthy snacks when she's sitting in the apartment by herself while somehow maintaining Hollywood beauty standards, even when she's at her lowest.
At least “Set It Up” places a lot of emphasis on Harper's career and her complicated relationship with Kirsten, deeply humanizing her boss by the end. But the movie's attempts at female empowerment ring rather hollow when it invests so much time into many of the beliefs that hold women back. Then there's the topic that goes completely unadressed: race. Their bosses are both minorities who worked their way up in corporate environments that still openly favor white men. The movie does dip a toe into how draining capitalism can be for those on the lower rungs, but it doesn't even approach as to how race might play a factor into Rick and Kirsten's personas and just how isolated they are. Rom-coms have come a long way recently, but “Set It Up” shouldn't be praised when other films have taken the genre much further.