Romcoms are by far the toughest genre to crack. I mean, really, the whole concept is pretty much unworkable: you have to spin a fun, focused, engaging narrative out of two people’s process of developing feelings for each other, which means that that process must be just organic enough to inspire audience identification and avoid looking stale, but also, on a core level, that it must be inorganic.
It’s hard enough to succeed at the former — we’re talking about the genre with the most storied and comprehensive catalog of known conventions outside of horror, so you’re facing an uphill battle, at every turn, to even convince people you’re not just robotically cribbing from something else, on top of which you also have to somehow convince them that those folks would really be falling for each other in those conditions, in that timeframe. And the only way you can possibly pull all that off is if you have your own experienced, refined perspective on love, because love is too amorphous a concept to be emulated from a distance (most romcoms fail because they lack a firm sense of what love is in the first place).
Then, even if you do manage to scare up a convincing sense of romantic reality, you also have to embellish that reality just so in order to make it propulsive: no crippling dyssynchronies, no lulls in conversation, no months of uneventfulness as familiarity slowly settles into attachment — if it’s not a perfect dance, why should we even bother? — and, most crucially, no intent to build a relationship on either player’s end.
This is the real hard part. In real life, most people who fall in love simultaneously have a trial period in which they actively try to get closer and produce sparks, and there’s just no narrative tension in that. For there to be tension, the two parties can’t know they’re falling in love, which means that they have to be kept in proximity by something else, and that something has to be A) fresh (just how many “romcom setups” are there?), B) imperative (they can’t have the choice to opt out of it before they’ve started to get butterflies for each other), and C) interesting on its own (because the setup will functionally be the movie, the thing that distinguishes it, and if we don’t care about it we won’t care about the rest). It has to be all that while also providing plenty of credible opportunities for them to bond by happenstance and an ultimate deterrent to their being together. In other words, it needs to be a stroke of genius, a perfect mechanism, born out of the writer’s mind and their mind alone.
Assuming you nail the perspective, the embellishment and the mechanism, you also have to nail the characters, who must be equal parts charismatic and vulnerable, fully-formed but visibly incomplete, with personalities in the same ballpark of likability, but distinct, to be fleshed out in ways that clash dramatically, but complementing each other. They have to have goals and motivations they care about more than the central relationship, but nothing they couldn’t reasonably compromise on or give up altogether by falling’s end; they have to be relationship-lonely but not lonely-lonely, because lonely-lonely people are a whole other can of worms (which means that there need to be friends, and those friends have to be supportive and likable but shy away from stereotypes and have lives of their own for the protagonists to show an interest in and thus prove they’re decent people). When they talk, they have to talk impeccably, saying things without really saying them, zinging each other but not too viciously, volunteering jokes and one-liners both funny and true to their personalities. And the more energy you invest in the dialogue, the more it’s going to toe the invisible line between entertaining and precious, a line you absolutely cannot cross under any circumstances.
Speaking of lines you can’t cross, you have to sell sex, sex, sex, all the time, imagined sex, symbolic sex, implied sex, interrupted sex, but never dipping into salacity and never diluting the tension. You have to acknowledge the protagonists as sexual beings with learnings and cravings that extend beyond one another, and to make them both read as attractive to an erratic audience, and to combine those two things seamlessly so that they’re attractive to each other inevitably — like a freight train — rather than arbitrarily. You have to be mindful of sexual politics, ever-shaky territory which entails a deep understanding of the larger society you’re depicting. On a similar note, if yours is a heterosexual romcom — and, if it’s getting produced, it probably is — you have to know something about gender roles, enough to deploy that knowledge with a light touch, lest the romance get sidetracked by patriarchal power dynamics (as so many romcoms do, if not immediately then over the years): continuing the balancing act, you have to enclose the central relationship in a bubble of parity, but still place it firmly in a recognizably imbalanced world.
Additionally, there are other, more specific things that have come to be expected of a good romcom: a sense of geography, the vivid evocation of a particular community/social environment, eager attention to eating and other little hedonistic pleasures, observational wit, a good soundtrack, an eye for casual wonder; all of which must be achieved, again, in a sufficiently original-seeming way. This is where the other crew members of the romcom—the cinematographer, the set & costume designers, the extra casting director, the location scout, the music supervisor—must each be fiercely expressive and resourceful in their individual work.
And let’s say you’ve managed to do all that, by some miraculous spark of sweeping creativity and patience—that’s still not getting into the toughest job of all, which is to fit all those contradictions, all those intricacies, all those mandatory assignments and close calls into the satisfying structure of a three-act narrative. Because, among other things, that also obliges you to engender a stakes-raising estrangement, which has to flow naturally from everything else, followed by a climax, which has to be perfectly-timed both in the movie’s time and in the characters’. Even if you’re up for the daunting task of applying structure to spontaneity, that’s still not all of it: you better be ready to break out every single punchline you’ve ever thought of and your comedic timing better be as sharp as a tack, because virtually every scene in a romcom worth its salt has to be funny (if you happen to be modeling your work after the Golden Age farces, then it’s virtually every beat). And this isn’t just any kind of humor we’re talking about; first, it has to be character-driven, which is hard to do, and second, it has to be ultimately good-natured, which is even harder.
So while I understand rejecting romcoms for all of the things they “have” to be (and taking to the ones that break some of those rules), you will excuse me for thinking it absurd to dismiss the sheer craft of a movie like Set It Up for its supposed “rigidity” or “lack of imagination.” There’s nothing that takes more dynamism and imagination than making a conventional romcom in 2018, and few things more rewarding than seeing a contemporary movie nail the whole routine and reclaim the humanistic vigor that made it a staple of popular cinema for so long. If the routine must die or evolve into something fundamentally different, some other-styled mixture of romance and comedy, so be it; it would probably be karmic justice for a genre founded on images of Clark Gable hitting women.
But as long as it sticks around, and as long as it’s tackled by people as talented as Silberman and Scanlon, I think it’s always going to make me immensely giddy.