Brow Beat

Netflix Is Bringing Romantic Comedies Back. Now It Needs to Make Them Better.

Set It Up and The Kissing Booth revive a genre movie studios have abandoned.

Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu in Set It Up.
Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu in Set It Up.
Netflix

In a normal year, a Hollywood studio releases between 12 and 15 major movies; the year’s not even half over, and Netflix has already blown past those numbers—and will probably quadruple them by year’s end, essentially releasing at least one movie a week to its millions of subscribers. On numbers alone, it follows that Netflix would be able to touch on more genres than its blockbuster-focused competitors, but it feels as if the streaming service has embraced the romantic comedy with particular gusto. They’ve already put out five rom-coms in 2018, more than most studios have managed in the past five years. Two in particular stand out: teen romance The Kissing Booth, which Netflix’s Ted Sarandos called “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world” (as per usual, the company provided no data to back up its claim), and the throwback Set It Up, greeted with warm reviews and audience reactions when it hit Netflix last weekend.

The pleasures of watching attractive and/or complicated people fall in love are universal, but with studios mostly consigning romance to weepy melodramas or siphoning it into wan subplots in dystopian science fiction, younger viewers have been, if not denied those pleasures outright, at least forced to seek them elsewhere. This may be why both Kissing Booth and Set It Up get away with their share of clunky filmmaking, and are most interesting for their earnest attempts to revive a semi-dormant genre.

Teen sensation The Kissing Booth does it, appropriately enough, by half-assing some pretty basic homework. This movie about semi-gawky 17-year-old Elle (Joey King) falling for the older brother (Jacob Elordi) of her best friend (Joel Courtney) is certainly aware of movies that came before it, albeit more in the teen-movie subgenre (the soundtrack is full of covers of ’80s pop, and Molly Ringwald has a supporting role as a parent). But the movie itself plays like it was written by a horny 11-year-old attempting to reconstruct past teen romances from memory. The performance style is aggressively phony—King has been an endearing child actor, but her simulations of mirth in her scenes with Courtney are downright frantic—and its failure to interrogate even its characters’ most questionable relationships turns queasy. Noah (Elordi) is aloof and violent, but the movie eventually up and decides that he’s a Harvard-bound genius. Lee (Courtney) is a controlling weirdo who pressures Elle to follow a set of friendship “rules” that forbid her from looking lustily at his brother, never mind dating him. Teen characters don’t have to be role models, but the movie seems only faintly aware of their troubling behavior.

The weird thing about The Kissing Booth, which may help account for its seeming popularity, is that it’s kind of smutty, like a Disney movie gone hormone-wild. King’s breasts are much commented-upon, and the movie repeatedly sets up gags about her getting caught shirtless. Usually, Elle just tries to own it by flaunting her semi-nakedness—not necessarily a bad attitude, but an odd motif. There’s also a surprising amount of sex for a movie that has nothing of value to say on the subject. It’s based on a novel, and it seems like the kind of material that might work better with the voice and interiority that comes more easily to that medium. Maybe on the page, Elle and Noah have a connection that goes beyond cute crush and animal lust.

Molly Ringwald and Joey King in The Kissing Booth (2018)
Molly Ringwald and Joey King in The Kissing Booth.
Netflix

At the risk of sounding like an old, The Kissing Booth movie is profoundly unromantic. It aims for a breathless up-to-the-moment simulation of fast-paced, mediated teenage life in 2018—Elle’s backstory is delivered via a poorly edited stop-and-go montage—but the only thing that lands is the simulation part. This is a fantastical vision of young love where the hunky older guy may tease you, but is ultimately super-smart, super-strong, and not especially interested in anyone else.

Many rom-coms traffic in fantasy, of course, but the better ones use style or wit to gussy up the pandering. That sparkle is clearly the aim of Set It Up, whose many admirers (including many critics) have compared it to ’90s romantic comedies like You’ve Got Mail or While You Were Sleeping. Its terrific hook is more plugged into the twentysomething experience than many of its predecessors, replacing fantastically large apartments with the cartoonishly demanding grind of working in New York. Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are both assistants working late hours for their bosses, in the hopes that this toil will eventually result in the life they’ve pictured for themselves. But faced with increasingly monstrous bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs), the two concoct a suitably zany scheme: Why not set the two taskmasters up with each other and hope that a new relationship, or at least some enthusiastic sex, distracts them from their endless work hours? Naturally, another new relationship develops via the unspoken attraction between Harper and Charlie.

Director Claire Scanlon moves all of this along at a comfortable clip, with a major assist from Deutch’s charming performance. Deutch has been better than her material in plenty of movies, but a shopworn rom-com can feel revelatory when it gives a vaguely familiar actor this kind of showcase. The material here isn’t better so much as it is friendlier: The movie has few if any memorable lines, but Deutch has a crackling, excitable way of delivering her banter. She moves quickly yet gracefully, particularly in a goofy slow-dance scene where she practically bounces off Powell like he’s a piece of furniture. If Charlie is supposed to be more soulful than he first appears, the screenplay and Powell don’t do the work; instead, he goes from mildly sarcastic to mildly nice, scoring almost no laughs in the process.

Still, there’s something refreshing about Set It Up (and to a much lesser extent, The Kissing Booth): the unashamed embrace of this much-maligned genre. These are genuine romantic comedies, unlike, say, The Big Sick or The 40-Year-Old Virgin—both delightful, funny films that prioritize culture clashes and guy hangouts, respectively, over romance. Fans of the genre have been given so little in the way of both romance and comedy that simply not having Set It Up’s Charlie played by Gerard Butler probably counts as a win. Younger audiences may not even know what they’ve been missing.

Many Netflix originals are vaguely unpolished, often meandering imitations of cable-rewatch classics, fine-tuned to their demographics in concept if not always execution. By the standards of The Kissing Booth, Set It Up is a pretty decent approximation of a regular movie; squinting at a row of halfway decent ’90s rom-coms, it fits right in. What it doesn’t do, despite its charms, is stand out. To its credit, its story of demanding bosses and professional setbacks doesn’t sell a fantasy version of being young in New York. Instead, it sells a fantasy version of watching a romantic comedy set in New York. If The Big Sick takes the genre so far away from romance that it barely counts as a rom-com, Set It Up is so self-conscious about reviving its genre that it feels like a copy of a copy.

Helping to bring back the romantic comedy may be Netflix’s first genuine contribution to cinema that goes broader than giving money and distribution to some talented filmmakers—and the promotional push they’re already giving the YA adaptation To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which isn’t due out until mid-August, indicates they’re committed to the rom-com revival. But rom-coms have been so unfairly dismissed or ignored for so long that fans of the genre tend to let a lot slide, like, for example, the number of times Charlie uses the word “penis” in place of a real punchline. As heartening as it is to see the genre revived, it would be even more exciting to see new entries that move beyond pastiche. There are examples on the Netflix servers right now, albeit not in-house productions: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Drinking Buddies, and the fantastic Sleeping with Other People are strong contemporary rom-coms that aren’t too cool for their roots. Currently, the Netflix original aesthetic and the boilerplate studio romantic comedy are almost too cozy a fit. Like a satisfying romance, they need a little more spark.