Hollywood’s love affair with romantic comedies has always been a tempestuous one, marked by highs and lows, but the genre has found an enthusiastic new champion in Netflix. The streaming giant has begun churning them out with heartening regularity, from its unexpected hit “A Christmas Prince” to the outdated teen smash “The Kissing Booth.” Claire Scanlon’s throwback charmer “Set It Up,” Netflix’s seventh rom-com of the year, is its best so far — and an indication the genre might be gearing up for another revival.
There’s one thing about rom-coms that hasn’t changed over the decades, though: the necessity of a charming pair of leads with kickass chemistry. Scanlon’s film boasts two such sets of stars: Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell do the heavy lifting as the couple at the heart of “Set It Up,” while Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs offer up amusing supporting turns that help drive the tongue-in-cheek plot. Harper (Deutch) and Charlie (Powell) are both beleaguered assistants, trapped in tough gigs serving bosses who don’t understand that “The Devil Wears Prada” wasn’t meant to serve as an instruction manual for unhinged professionals. Harper looks up to her boss Kirsten (Liu), a pioneering sports reporter who has struck out with her own site that Harper desperately wants to write for someday, while Charlie is just hoping to tough it out with nutty Rick (Diggs) long enough to get a cushy gig at his investment firm.
After a prototypical meet-cute in the lobby of their swanky office building (punctuated by sassy chemistry and an initial mistrust of the other that will inevitably give way to romance), Harper and Charlie cook up a plan: They’ll make their wild bosses fall in love, in the hopes that a new relationship will push both Kirsten and Rick to spend time away from the office so that Harper and Charlie can get their own lives back. As Harper happily declares, they’ll “Cyrano” the two of them together, and never look back.
Charlie has a girlfriend he wants to spend time with (supermodel Joan Smalls, underutilized), while Harper is eager to work on her writing and maybe find a little bit of time for her own romance. The pair’s bond, bolstered by their shared goal and a similar sense of humor, is first rooted in friendship, and while there’s never any doubt that “Set It Up” is really about Harper and Charlie’s love story, watching Deutch and Powell slowly fall for each other is well worth the somewhat bloated 101-minute running time.
Throwing Kirsten and Rick together proves to be a bit of a challenge — they are both temperamental workaholics; Diggs in particular appears to relish playing a raging asshole prone to trashing his audience in amusing fashion — and Harper and Charlie take on a series of weird tasks that also poke fun at the limits of the rom-com genre. Mere minutes after watching Harper and Charlie partake in their own meet-cute, the newfound friends are bickering about the best way to force their bosses into their own meet-cute, complete with an elevator-set gag that’s a solid mix of raunchy and funny.
Both Deutch and Powell prove adept at physical comedy, from Powell tossing his cell phone when an enraged Rick surprises him (small, but played with style) to Deutch gamely running around her office in order to rack up FitBit steps on Kirsten’s own device (she doesn’t want her trainer to be angry, and Harper doesn’t want an angry Kirsten).
Between the film’s four central stars, Scanlon has more than enough to focus on, but Katie Silberman’s snappy script builds in a number of engaging supporting characters, including Harper’s ditzy best friend Becca (Meredith Hagner), her dorky fiancé Mike (Jon Rudnitsky), and Charlie’s roommate Duncan (Pete Davidson). While they all provide their own necessary bits of comedic wackiness, they also push the convoluted plot forward, from Duncan’s repeated protestations over Charlie’s failing relationship to Becca and Mike’s alcohol-fueled engagement party (which proves to be a turning point for Charlie and Harper, and one that hints that their friends might be formulating their own plan to push them together).
Despite the throwback nature of its storyline, “Set It Up” does smuggle in some contemporary touches, including an actual investment in Harper’s professional aspirations and a canny exploration of how a career woman like Kirsten is viewed by her peers (no one cares about her professional accomplishments, but when she lands a man, everyone is suddenly her biggest fan). It’s a telling, smart contrast to Netflix’s other recent original rom-com, the high school-set “Kissing Booth,” which traffics in reductive stereotypes, including a heroine at the mercy of a violent love interest.
At its heart, though, “Set It Up” is a classic rom-com brought to life by a pair of wonderfully well-matched stars who seem to revel in the genre. This is cinematic comfort food, the kind we’ve been starving for.
“Set It Up” will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, June 15.