Back in eighth grade, there was a movie on demand that I’d watch just about every day. I wasn’t always actively watching (or enjoying) it, but it was my background noise and my comfort. At a time when I didn’t have many friends and wasn’t having many new experiences, I’d huddle under a blanket on my couch and put on…Grown Ups. Yes, the Adam Sandler-led disaster Grown Ups, which I will stand by as a feel-good summer flick even if I haven’t returned to it since—mostly out of what I expect to be a deep shame. Look, I can’t explain my taste in films. I will watch anything and love the worst things. So, at least I can describe it.
Over time, my taste has evolved but my behavior hasn’t quite caught up. As it turns out, I’d do this a lot over the course of the next decade of my life. Good or bad, I find the greatest comfort in sinking deep beneath the layers of the games, shows and movies that I find an inkling of familiarity or warmth in. When I was going through my earliest romantic squabbles, (500) Days of Summer was my guiding light and has gone on to become my favorite movie of all time. The last year’s been a notoriously difficult one, due in large part to being isolated from the people I care about. Because of this, I did the thing I always do: I withdrew into a sort of cocoon, woven from the threads of the media I love. The hope, I guess, was that I’d emerge from it a fully-formed human again. After all, so many of our identities and beliefs are shaped by things we consume. I don’t know much about the science behind the healing properties of media, but with little else to do and bordering on collapse, I was game. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve rewatched the entirety of Gilmore Girls (twice!) in the hope that maybe one day I’ll wake up in a sleepy, early 2000s Connecticut town where my biggest problems are the spoiled rich kids at school. And last fall, when I was shut in—cold and alone once again—I reached out to another single movie binge: Set It Up. I watched it about a dozen times in a week…and then maybe another dozen in the month after.
It wasn’t a situation where Set It Up immediately became my favorite movie ever. At first, in the middle of a depressive spiral, I just needed something comforting and light to put on to feel alright. I had watched it in the past and loved it, but had never returned to the movie. It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I watched it that first of a few dozen times, I latched on so hard that I actually immediately replayed it—to the point where I passed out on the couch with it in the background. Just like that, I’d formed some connection to the movie that brought me peace of mind and I was hooked. It wouldn’t be for a while, perhaps after those first dozen viewings, that I realized that the sweet trappings of Set It Up drew me in, but it wasn’t what kept me around.
For those unfamiliar with Set It Up, it’s a Netflix film about two assistants (Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell) with horrible (read: abusive) bosses (Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs), whom they set up so they can get off their backs and reclaim their lives. It was widely touted as a return to form for rom-coms when it came out—which I echo, but you could probably tell that already. My reasons for loving it have very little to do with the substance of the plot or characters, though, and everything to do with its setting.
Set It Up reminded me of home at a time when it felt so far away. Let me tell you a little bit about summer in my home—and the best place in the world—New York City. It’s magical and, especially in the summer, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Something about the seemingly infinite possibilities of this city and the good weather make it come alive, and I come alive with it. On the best days, I walk around and encounter the strangest characters. A man known only as “skate shirt guy” in my phone is just one of the weirdos I’ve bumped into while exploring. I ran into him after wandering around Williamsburg for a few hours, wanting to find a bar to sit down and have a drink. More than any buzz I could ever hope to build, “skate shirt guy”—who was standing outside of one such bar and in fact completely stopped me from entering one—immediately lit me up. Forgetting my mission, I sat with him on the sidewalk outside for what felt like half an hour as he drunkenly regaled me with his life story (he has been all over the place), philosophy (the most “free love” kind of guy I’ve ever met) and what he did for work (which I’ll leave you to puzzle together from his name in my phone). I’ve never spoken to him or even walked past that place since, and yet they’ve remained rooted in my head as a quintessentially New York experience I can’t wait to have again.
A hike from W 102nd Street down to Union Square remains one of the most pleasant and peaceful days of my life. I’ve stormed Central Park in search of Pokémon, picnicked in Prospect, run laps in McCarren in an unsuccessful bid to be fit, played Mario Kart in Bryant and hopped a fence with my best bud because of gunfire in my local one. I’ve lived a whole life here.
Set It Up, which (as you can maybe imagine by now) takes place during a New York City summer, was a lifeline when I had missed my own chance at one. These two assistants live out a dream summer: There’s a pool party and a rooftop party (god how I miss those), but there’re also quieter tender moments like drunkenly tracking down a pizza place and climbing a fire escape with a close friend. There’s a walk on the High Line, a spot I haven’t been to in what feels like forever. There’s a Yankees game up in the Bronx. I don’t even like baseball—and especially don’t like the Yankees—but goddamn, did it make me want to scoop up a ticket and see them! Maybe go to a Knicks game or a Nets game like I promised myself I would before the pandemic delayed those plans. There are so many things in the film that I haven’t ever done or that I haven’t done in so long, that seeing them laid out before me like that—even as a backdrop—made me appreciate what I had, and long for the day when I’d get it back.
It’s not that the movie’s rendition of New York is extravagant or overly romantic, it’s that it’s incredibly normal and almost gentle. Set It Up doesn’t even really do a great job spotlighting or fetishizing New York like a ton of media about the city does. It contains just enough of the mundane, the average and even the great, but filtered through a grounded and warm lens that doesn’t bring attention to it. It’s just a setting, a backdrop. It was my backdrop for years, until this last one ripped it away from me. And a year without it has been trying. Even now, with a vague end to the pandemic in sight and half a vaccine coursing through me, I don’t know when I’ll be able to really enjoy my city the way this movie captures it, so inelegant and simple. Set It Up didn’t just remind me of my pre-pandemic life here, it reminded me of everything I’ve yet to do. It reminded me of the life I have to start living after all this is behind us. Maybe I miss feeling a part of things, and New York City is the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of.
I realize how much of a reach this sounds like. “This film that broadly just takes place in New York got you in your feelings about the city?” Yeah, it really did. I’ve been locked away for my safety for a year while the life I knew, the life broadly gestured at in this movie, just kind of crumbled. I needed to reach for something, but reaching is starting to get exhausting.
I still put on the movie every now and then, but what once struck me as hopeful thinking last fall now reeks of a desperation that now feels like it’s keeping me trapped. The cocoon I’ve spent the past few months erecting feels much more like a jail than a protective shell, and while there was likely a time where Set It Up was protecting me from the outside world and reminding me of how good it was when I could be a part of it, it now feels like the movie’s keeping me from it. So yeah, maybe it’s time for a change of pace.
It’s a year later and I’m not entirely put back together. Neither is the world. But I feel the heat from the sun beaming through the window on the back of my neck, and I know the summer is coming back around. It may be time to put down the movies. Time to try to emerge from this cocoon and back into my life. It’s not free of harm—viral or otherwise—but it never was and I still made the most of it then. I’m always going to be thankful to Set It Up for reminding me of the home and time I lost for a bit there, but it may be time for me to take it back for myself.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.