'Sleeping with Other People'
Somewhere over the last decade, “rom-com” became a dirty term in Hollywood. To be fair, that was mostly the result of tediously cranked-out movies that sullied the genre out of acceptable date night rotations. However, it’s such a simple and appealing formula that it’s odd to think to think such movies have all but exited the mainstream unless they’re laced with R-rated raunch. Leslye Headland’s second feature ‘Sleeping with Other People’ arrives on screens as an indie, even though it’s actually a crowd-pleaser. It’s a delightful romantic romp spruced up with just enough friendly filth to feel contemporary.
Things kick off in the ancient days of 2002. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie star as Jake and Lainey, a pair of college freshman who exchange banter for virginities on one weird night never repeated. Flashfoward to today and both of them are successful New Yorkers who just can’t figure out that “relationship” thing. Jake gets shoved in front of a car by his latest stilted ex as part of his lifelong avoidance of commitment and intimacy. Lainey, on the other hand, remains unhealthily obsessed with a married doctor (played with deadpan sleaze and a ridiculous moustache by Adam Scott) that she’s pined over since college. The duo reconnect in a sex-addicts meeting and decide to become best friends with a code word (“mousetrap”) that puts a stop to any sexual tension that might arise. Of course, as all the supporting characters are quick to remind them: Men and women can’t be friends, dummy!
Yes, it’s that od Nora Ephron chestnut again. Even if it’s not true (especially for unattractive people like myself for whom platonic friends of the opposite sex come easily!), it sure makes for good rom-com material. As writer/director Headland proved with her underrated debut ‘Bachelorette‘, she has a knack for delightfully dirty dialogue backed by an emotional gut-punch that sneaks up on viewers. For much of its running time, ‘Sleeping with Other People’ coasts by on sparkling dialogue spat out by charming comic actors, tastefully graphic sex jokes, oodles of inappropriate behavior, and tension between the leads that couldn’t possibly turn into something more, right? Headland sneaks in a few self-conscious rom-com gags as well as a few zags when one might expect zigs, but for the most part she’s unafraid to deliver a rom-com and somehow makes the old dog of a genre walk again.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Headland has a way with casting. Sudeikis and Brie make a charming combo worth following through all the obvious will-they-or-won’t-they shenanigans. Sudeikis trots out the wiseass/doofus routine he’s been treading since ‘SNL’. Even though it’s never quite as funny as the surreal sketch characters he used to play, the guy is getting quite good at it. Brie plays the sort of hot mess that you can’t help but love because she’s clearly on the edge of working it all out. Best of all, Headland allows them both to come off as full-on loonies, which helps push them slightly above the standard rom-com coupling.
The supporting cast is even better, from Scott’s quietly obnoxious d-bag to Natasha Lyonne’s sarcastic philosopher best friend or Amanda Peet’s sweetly hard-edged boss. Best of all are the great Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage as Jake’s married friends who riff so well together as a worn-in (but not out) couple that you wish the movie was actually about them.
While Headland does an admirable job of pulling the rom-com from the grave kicking and screaming, it’s hard to ignore just how much she pulls from the ‘When Harry Met Sally’ rulebook. There are times when the movie is practically a scene-by-scene remake that can feel distracting. Still, if you’re going to steal, steal form the best. Headland clearly knows what she’s doing and finds enough big laughs and moments of quiet unstated intimacy that feel genuinely romantic. Sure, ‘Sleeping with Other People’ might never overcome the burden of its influences, but at this point even making a watchable rom-com with a point of view qualifies as a throwback. Headland can skate by on genre nostalgia whenever she doesn’t have anything new to add. At this low point in the rom-com cycle, that’s A-OK.