For years now, the romcom has been missing in action, on a steady decline from its former glory in the 1990s, when no year was complete without a contribution by Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts to the canon. There have been isolated hits like The Big Sick, but in recent years a former genre staple has been weirdly absent. Can Netflix bring it back?
Set It Up is one of the platform’s latest releases in an ongoing effort to create original projects that attract and retain viewers—part of a projected $8 billion in content they’re creating this year, and one of a number of recent examples of the platform stepping in to fill gaps left by franchise-drunk Hollywood. It’s a lighthearted summer romp about two overworked assistants who decide to “Cyrano” their hard-driving bosses—a venture capitalist played by Taye Diggs and a legendary sports reporter played by Lucy Liu—into falling in love and giving them some free time. It stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, both of whom appeared in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!
The movie is not perfect. First off, how are you going to get Lucy Liu and relegate her to supporting status? And while the overall cast of characters is fairly diverse, the (very charming!) lead protagonists apparently still have to be white. Also, are you really going to use the insult “douchetard” in the year of our lord 2018? Really?
But they’ve got lots of gorgeous shots of New York City, and the leads’ chemistry is good, and Liu and Diggs and Tituss Burgess in a brief appearance are all very funny, and it was just so nice to spend two hours not thinking about Donald goddamn Trump. It’s not spectacular, but it’s perfectly nice, which is plenty when you aren’t trying to convince somebody to leave their house and pay $15 for a ticket—just to stretch out on their own couch.
As David Sims pointed out at the Atlantic, the movie looks like part of a new strategy at Netflix, to fill the gaps left by a Hollywood obsessed with massively expensive superhero franchises and constantly chasing the next big blockbuster. This is exactly what Netflix should be doing: making good romcoms cheap—or at least, cheap compared to all the billion-dollar CGI slugfests that Hollywood churns out. Netflix can take advantage of its different business model, where they control the distribution and can operate more like an old-fashioned studio-system outfit—a model which produced some great works of art floating on an endless sea of perfectly good trifles that aren’t going into national historic registries, but remain perfectly entertaining when caught on TCM at 4 p.m. on a lazy, hazy summer afternoon.
And in fact, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Glen Powell, who plays Charlie, sort of talked about this: “The movies that I grew up watching, the movies that get you into the business in the first place, are no longer being made—those mid-level movies that are just kind of character movies, instead of people with spandex and superpowers shooting out of their hands,” he said. “I’m talking to them about doing several other things right now, because I think they’re the people that give you autonomy to make those movies.”
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s another comparison that provides Netflix with an entire section of the bookstore to raid for ideas. “Instead of grouping members by age or race or even what country they live in, Netflix has tracked viewing habits and identified almost 2,000 microclusters that each Netflix user falls into,” explained a recent New York deep dive into the company. As much as the platform looks like a throwback to the old studio system, that sounds to me like the heyday of the Harlequin category romance novel, which established specific lines and focused on serving the audiences who gravitated to them. Romantic suspense, heartwarming tales of single dads, stories about dueling corporate raiders with chemistry, secretaries and overbearing billionaires—whatever you liked, they had six new books available in your preference every month. Devoted fans could subscribe to the company’s reader service, which mailed them regularly boxes of new releases—another subscription example.
And so for the millionth time I plead with the company to hire some romance readers and start optioning genre favorites. For the love of God, you guys, take a hint!