A deconstructive sweet-and-sourball of a romantic comedy, Sleeping With Other People seems made for the therapeutically inclined. To that end, it doesn’t quite deliver the story we might expect from its initial meet-cute. Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) do make their way to a big dance number and some climactic soul-baring, but Leslye Headland’s movie doesn’t balance out emotional payoffs for everybody. Both partners learn lessons, but neither quite gets what they want.
In this, Sleeping With Other People both challenges and reconfirms the rom-com formula, which is at its core an exercise in withholding. By keeping its two adorable and supposedly wildly incompatible stars apart for as long as possible, the romantic comedy heightens the joy of seeing them finally tumble into each other’s arms on a charming brownstone-lined street.
Headland, who wrote and directed this movie, appears to dispense with that structure right away. She gives Lainey and Jake a flashback scene showing them losing their virginities together years before on the roof of their college dorm. Her twist is that by the time the two meet again as adults, it’s outside a sex addicts meeting. Lainey hopes to get over her fear of commitment and Jake is trying unenthusiastically to stop all his tomcatting. Instead of sticking with the meetings, the two pledge to be platonic buddies and act as a mutual support system. After all, who else could understand their problems better? They even have a safe word for when things get too sexy between them: “Mousetrap”.
From that point on, the film is left to tease out their platonic period, handling the machinations in a mostly organic fashion. It helps that the obvious touchstone here is When Harry Met Sally, which also managed the harder-than-it-looks trick of pretending that the obvious might not actually happen. Lainey helps here too, as she’s not a character we’re used to seeing in films of this sort. Female leads in romantic comedies tend to have problems of the cute variety: they needs everything to be just perfect, or they’re determined to settle on the safe and boring guy when they should be with the unconventionally attractive guy with a lousy job. Lainey, though, is actually a mess.
In Sleeping With Other People‘s opening scene, she breaks up with her boyfriend and runs into the bathroom to have a full-blown panic attack that’s only assuaged by texting Matthew (Adam Scott), the creepy married doctor with whom she’s carrying on an affair. This is followed by a painful assignation between the two in his office that twists from a damaged eroticism to devastating sadness. After breaking things off with Matthew, she runs into him by accident, and dashes into the bathroom to vomit. The desperation in her grasping for a genuine relationship doesn’t drag the story down, though, but heightens the strong romantic undercurrent of her friendship with Jake.
It helps that Brie and Sudeikis are trained in the fine-tuning required for TV comedy instead of the big-screen big gesture, as this makes Lainey and Jake’s potentially problematic set pieces — like the one where they drop a pile of Ecstasy and have a dance-off at a kids’ birthday party set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” — not feel parachuted in from a Seth Rogen flick.
But Sleeping With Other People remains imbalanced, its comedic examination of Lainey’s life more energetic than its glances at Jake. Sudeikis is a versatile comedic lead, able to deliver stinging sarcasm, laidback snark, or genial warmth with equal ease. But here his placidity doesn’t connect nearly as much as Lainey’s energy. He burns some dramatic calories while trying to woo his high-powered boss Paula (Amanda Peet), but Sudeikis’ confidence is just too firmly rooted, for Jake’s romantic problems to carry a fraction of the weight of Lainey’s.
Sleeping With Other People has been sold as something of a female-powered bed-hopping comedy like Trainwreck. That’s not entirely false. It takes a particular kind of nerve to include the scene where a baffled Jake is giving Lainey a point-by-point masturbation tutorial and then somehow works in a reference to an IBM Thinkpad. But Headland doesn’t show as much interest in aerobic sex scenes or the one-night-stand montage of shame as she does in frank talk between friends that both establishes intimacy and lands a joke.
In this again, it recalls When Harry Met Sally, trying simultaneously to demystify its characters’ hangups, establish the bona fides of their friendship, and celebrate old-fashioned romance. Headland is able to do all of that and also retain a surprising emotional honesty by her all-too-conventional conclusion.