Comedies, Yes, but No One Emerges Unscathed

Posted June 14, 2018 7:27 p.m. EDT

“Set It Up” is a new Netflix Original romantic comedy written by Katie Silberman and directed by Claire Scanlon. But the expectation that a female-written, female-directed effort would yield something refreshingly different is scotched within the first few minutes.

The movie’s opening montage depicts a view of today’s gig economy in New York City, specifically the sorry lot of the personal assistant. “I have a master’s in sociology and nothing else to do today,” one such young person says into a phone as he is about to be put on hold. Big lights will inspire you, indeed.

Eventually the film alights on Harper, the personal assistant to an icy sports reporter and website master, Kirsten Stevens (Lucy Liu), and then on Charlie, the assistant to a venture capitalist, Rick Owen (Taye Diggs, his inherent charisma subsumed in a truly nasty role).

Harper (Zoey Deutch, charming) and Charlie (Glen Powell, unable to transcend his character’s smarmy game face) meet semi-cute working late, fetching their bosses’ dinners.

Silberman’s attention to trendy detail is exemplified by some noted here. When Harper is told the wait time for her order of truffle mac and cheese, she retorts: “Twenty-five minutes? Are you sniffing for the truffles yourself?” Charlie, on the other hand, waxes indignant. “What kind of grocery store doesn’t serve saffron-infused Kobe beef, medium-rare?” he says. After initial hostilities, Harper and Charlie determine that the best way to get out of their private hells is through a love match between their bosses. Hence, this film is “The Devil Wears Prada” magnified, and then it becomes a gloss on “The Parent Trap.” “Set It Up” fully acknowledges the debt with an ostensible laugh line when Charlie says, “I’ve seen the Lindsay Lohan classic enough times to know we are full-on Parent Trapping, hard.”

The movie’s humor can be full-on unpleasant, as when an obese delivery man begins stripping, then urinating, while on a stalled elevator car. The liberal use of profanity and sexual innuendo actually succeeds in achieving gratuitousness. Powell’s character makes no fewer than four penis jokes in the first hour, three of them about his own. Remember, this is the guy that the female protagonist is destined to fall for in the end.

At one point, Liu’s character advises Deutch’s character not to “be one of those women who’s afraid to say,” then utters the word that recently got talk show host Samantha Bee in a spot of trouble. These days, abusive bosses aren’t as funny as we once took them to be; I don’t think the “Set It Up” bosses would be funny even under different cultural circumstances. (The 1960 classic “The Apartment” actually plays less dated than this film in this way.)

I found all of these characters depressing. I’m happy that my profession does not require me to find out if they have real-life analogues.

Another Netflix comedy, “I’m Not an Easy Man,” which debuted in April, is also the work of a female director, Eleonore Pourriat, who wrote the film as well. Alas, it, too, is not very good.

The premise is simple: Extreme male chauvinist bumps his head on a Paris street sign, passes out and wakes up in a gender-reversed world. The street sign was for Pere Lachaise Cemetery; when he wakes up, it’s for Mere Lachaise. John Steinbeck is Jane Steinbeck. Women don’t wear makeup and are sexual aggressors, while men are required to shave their chests and inner thighs. And so on and so on. One could fill a 98-minute movie with such minutiae, but why would you want to? This picture is a heavy-handed pursuit of diminishing returns, given that the male lead, Vincent Elbaz, is equally unappealing as a creepy alpha male and a befuddled representative of oppressed manhood. As it happens, this movie is an expansion of Pourriat’s 2010 short film, “Oppressed Majority,” which was a punchier, and not particularly comedic, allegory of sexual assault. That one can be found on YouTube; I don’t think it’s good either, but it’s more genuinely thought-provoking than its expansion.

An academic having an early midlife crisis who neglects his wife, flirts with a student and stresses over a more successful colleague sounds like a scenario out of, if you’ll forgive me, a Woody Allen film. In this case, it’s the premise of a South African Netflix comedy, “Catching Feelings,” written and directed by and starring Kagiso Lediga, a popular stand-up comedian and television performer in his country. It is notable both for its considerable comedic flair and its detailed depiction of Johannesburg.

Lediga’s character, Max, is a creative writing teacher whom we first see performing a daringly lewd lecture on the cuckold-growing-horns myth. He’s financially overextended, drinks too much and soon falls under twin spells — one woven by a female student, the other by a famous white writer who has returned to South Africa after a long, self-imposed exile.

Heiner, the writer (a boisterous Andrew Buckland), tells Max that he found his debut novel, “Blossom of the Roses,” promising and invites Max to spar with him about politics in front of a female interviewer who’s entranced — by Heiner. At one of Heiner’s parties, Max encounters a group of his students, including the flirtatious one (Zandile Tisani), who introduces him to cocaine. We next see Max holding court under the influence, proclaiming, “You cannot compare Hitler to Shaka Zulu,” the warrior king. Many of the laugh lines here are similarly unexpected.

After a Viagra-induced heart attack, Heiner moves in with Max and his beautiful journalist wife (Pearl Thusi), and Max starts imagining his own cuckold’s tale happening to him. “Catching Feelings” starts to sag a little at this point; cultural specificity or no, the spectacle of a man exploding his own life for no good reason is a familiar one. But the feeling I was left with when all was said and done was the satisfying one of having encountered a fresh new comedic voice.