Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
It’s only fitting that Claire Scanlon’s charming romantic comedy “Set It Up” primarily takes place in an office building. Its lead characters are initially bound together by their tough gigs as overworked assistants, and the film is as much about one character’s love affair with her job as it is with her actual paramour. While “Set It Up” is built on a strong foundation of classic rom-com tropes (from the meet-cutes to the misunderstandings), it also winks at the genre, folding in some smart subversions along the way. The best one: that fledgling journalist Harper (Zoey Deutch) is equally compelled by her career and her budding romance with Charlie (Glen Powell).
Few rom-coms have managed to successfully build a love story that also has the space for either of its leads — especially the women — to succeed on a professional level. In this particular genre, it’s rare for women to have it all, and even the films that do involve career issues have often used them for unprogressive ends.
There’s the ones that just use them as an excuse to make the plot tick (from “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days” to “The Proposal”), and the ones that imagine that women with career aspirations are destined by unlucky in love (“Knocked Up” or “Sweet Home Alabama”). Sometimes, professional entanglements help bring would-be lovers together, as is the case with a pair of Jennifer Lopez-starring offerings, “Maid in Manhattan” and “The Wedding Planner.” Other films rely on job issues to keep their leads apart, like in “Notting Hill” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
Another recent Netflix original — the party-hearty “Ibiza” — centered on a professionally unsatisfied woman (Gillian Jacobs, also playing a character named Harper) who risks her job to chase after a handsome DJ. By the film’s conclusion, Harper has gotten her career goals back on track, but the original message (it’s okay to toss your career away for a hot dude) is a strange one buried in an otherwise fun film. In Scanlon’s story, the first thing we learn about Deutch’s Harper is how much she loves her job and how much she wants to succeed at her chosen craft. Romance comes later.
In one of the film’s earliest interactions between Harper and her demanding boss Kirsten (Lucy Liu), Harper cries when pitching a story she feels passionately about (Katie Silberman’s smart script calls back to this instance a lot, even managing to wedge in an introduction to the friend who inspired the story in the first place). Kirsten is a bad-ass sports journalist who has struck out with her own website, and Harper took the job as her right-hand gal in order to be close to her hero, maybe even lucking into a mentorship along the way. Harper thought it would be a stepping stone, but things haven’t worked out that way, and her attempts at pitching to Kirsten have been swiftly struck down.
The most obvious corollary to the Kirsten and Harper relationship is the Anne Hathaway-starring modern classic “The Devil Wears Prada,” in which Hathaway also plays a struggling young journalist who takes on an assistant gig with a nutty boss in hopes that it will bolster her career. While Liu is cast as a Miranda Priestly-type bad boss — her crazy demands for food and nap time smack of a modern day Miranda — the way that Harper idolizes Kirsten is totally different. The worst thing that happens to Hathaway in “Devil” is being compared to Miranda; one gets the sense that Harper would die to hear something similar about her and Kirsten.
As insane as Kirsten can be, Harper is steadfast in her admiration of her boss’ accomplishments. She wants to be like her, or at least something like her, and her biggest dream is to have an article (just one!) on her site. Kirsten is a bit scary, but “Set It Up” doesn’t play her as villain, instead occasionally allowing the audience to see the pioneering sports reporter through Harper’s eyes. Early in their friendship, Harper shows Charlie a clip of the tough-as-nails Kirsten dressing down a skeevy athlete on video, an interview that apparently catapulted her to fame. The chyron underneath: “the toughest sportscaster in the game.” Harper wants that.
Of course, Harper and Charlie’s plan to set up their life-ruining bosses, all the better to give them even a smidge of free time, ends up working. Suddenly flush in love, Kirsten softens up a bit when it comes to Harper. Turns out, her scary boss act was totally on purpose. “I know that I’ve been cunty to you,” Kirsten tells Harper (and yes, she also implores her to be the kind of woman who is not afraid of the C-word). “It’s because I want you to succeed. I see so much potential in you, but you have to have tough skin, so if I am the most awful person when this shitstorm of an industry is hard on you, I know that you will be prepared.”
Harper is overwhelmed, finally feeling as if she might be on the right track. But because this is a rom-com, that’s the moment everything blows up in her face. She and Charlie have their first fight — no spoilers here, but it’s about Kirsten — and as they spar, the duo break out some hurtful truths. The worst one that Charlie comes up with: “You are afraid not to be an assistant anymore,” accusing Harper of playing it safe and not risking it to work on her true passion. Nothing could hurt Harper more, and even as her friendship (and perhaps more?) with Charlie is on the line, it’s that observation that guts her.
Soon enough, Harper is also fighting with Kirsten, and when she gets fired, the fallout is rendered like any other kind of heartbreak. Harper can’t eat, she can’t sleep, and she also can’t write. While Charlie grapples with doing the right thing (and perhaps patching things up with Harper in the process), Harper is fixated on the job she lost, her healing eventually taking root in the decision to finish her passion project, not to make up with Charlie.
Charlie obsesses over Harper; Harper obsesses over work.
Okay, one small spoiler: Harper finishes her article. And when she sneaks back into Kirsten’s office to get her stuff, only to find her old boss there and begging her to come back, she’s faced with a real dilemma. “I learned so much from you,” Harper tells Kirsten. “You’re my hero.” But she can’t come back, she needs to write, and being someone’s Gal Friday doesn’t advance that ambition. Kirsten gets it — sure, sure, she tries to fire Harper again, after she’s already declined the offer — but her next question is if Harper has written anything. She has.
There’s still plenty of romance in “Set It Up,” of course, and when Harper walks out of that damn office building again, flush with happiness and brimming with ideas and suggestions from her newly-minted mentor, Charlie is waiting for her. Yes, she gets the guy, but she also gets the job.
“Set It Up” is currently available on Netflix.