Spoilers ahead for Netflix's Set It Up.
While watching the opening New York-set montage of Netflix’s Set It Up, I felt like I was bumping into a long-lost childhood friend who looks a little bit different, but whose fundamental personality traits remain largely the same. After years going without a romantic comedy whose opening scene is set to a jubilant Motown song, Set It Up felt a lot like coming home. After meeting the two charming leads within the movie’s first five minutes, I was happily locked in for the next hour and a half. I knew where this story was headed, because I’d seen it before. Right?
Not quite. Sure, Set It Up does contain all the quintessential elements of a romantic comedy. There’s a memorable meet-cute: Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), two attractive New Yorkers in their 20s, meet in the lobby of an office building where they both work as assistants for equally tyrannical bosses, played by Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs. The assistant duo concocts a scheme reminiscent of the ones found in screwball comedies like It Happened One Night: Harper and Charlie decide to set up their bosses so they can benefit with an ounce more free time. She calls it a “Cyrano.” He calls it Parent Trapping, referencing the “Lindsay Lohan classic.” There’s a memorable pre-kiss speech and references to Romeo and Juliet. Finally, as director Claire Scanlon said in an interview with Refinery29, the humour outweighs the romance. “I would almost say that this is a com-rom,” she said.
Yet for all its structural familiarities, Set It Up is remarkably refreshing. The movie marks the first time a the classic rom-com format has been shaped around our particular moment in history, and made specific to the millennial experience. While there are some oblique references to Life in the Year 2018 (like swiping through Tinder at your desk ), the movie’s most significant adaptation to the current moment comes in the leading couples’ economic status and career anxiety.
Take Harper’s professional goals as the perfect example. At first, Harper resembles a classic rom-com protagonist because she wants to be a journalist — and, let’s face it, what rom-com heroine doesn’t share those aspirations? So many iconic characters are journalists or writers: Drew Barrymore’s a columnist in Never Been Kissed, Julia Roberts is a food critic in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Meg Ryan’s Sally graduates from journalism school and quickly gets a job in When Harry Met Sally. Kate Hudson longs to write hard-hitting investigative pieces in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; instead, she’s the “how to girl.” But unlike these characters, Harper hasn’t made it yet. She’s a 23-year-old who’s often too exhausted by her demanding boss to pursue her reporting dreams. She’s no 23-year-old super-successful wunderkind, taking over the media world with a casual shrug.
Set It Up’s duo may be in their mid-twenties like other rom-com couples, but they’re in the 21st century’s version of the mid-twenties. Charlie and Harper are marooned in the extended childhood that now stretches after college graduation. “But you’re like a, grown up,” Charlie tells Harper during one of their early meetings. “Take that back,” she quips. Harper’s still solidly in the unglamorous “figuring it out phase” of her life. A telling scene in the movie’s opening shows how Harper perceives her stage in life. After her best friend (Meredith Hagner) gets engaged, Harper exclaims, “Oh my God. We’re not old enough to get married,” instead of offering her congratulations. For Harper, adulthood is an option, not an age. Her friend has chosen to cross over.
Charlie and Harper aren't quite grown up yet — but it’s not entirely their fault. The high-rise world their successful bosses occupy is seemingly closed off to them. Despite brandishing shiny degrees, millennials like Charlie and Harper earn less than prior generations, and are often mired in debt from the schools they were told they needed to attend in order to get jobs. The assistants strain to gain entry into professional strata by working until their eyes are bleary. They're subsisting off of dreams and stolen tortilla chips. The system is stacked against them.
Though the system’s not stacked against everyone, as Harper is reminded when a recent Dartmouth grad waltzes into her boss’s office. “You are so lucky to work for her,” the recent grad tells Harper. “I reached out through the alumni magazine, and she responded right away.” Harper has been working until three in the morning for access to a world that some of her peers simply inherit through privilege or the right school.
Given the movie’s umbrella of professional anxiety, Charlie and Harper’s happy ending isn’t just romantic. It’s also professional. Charlie and Harper are liberated from their assistant jobs and off to another unknown. This time, on their own terms. And this time, with each other.
In another era, Charlie and Harper's bosses — a sports journalist and a VC manager — would be the ones getting the happily ever after. Back in the ‘90s rom-com boom, two scraggly assistants who sometimes look vaguely under-showered wouldn’t be passable heroes. But it’s 2018! We’re all scraggly and eating pizza on the floor for dinner. Charlie and Harper are extremely relatable. They may not be as glamorous as their bosses, but I want them to have a good love story. I want all of us struggling millennials to have good love stories. Set It Up is truly the first millennial rom-com. Next step? Reworking the meet-cute for the digital age.