Poor romantic comedies. Even our criticisms of them have grown stale.
“They’re not as good as they used to be,” we moan, yearning for some purer time when we didn’t know the time-tested beats, the inevitable outcomes, and the dynamics seemed more attuned to How We Date Now. Even the character types have started to become one big blur of cliches.
How refreshing, then, that “Sleeping With Other People” gives the form a solid adrenaline boost by managing to both operate within the comforting constraints of “When Harry Met Sally’s” can men and women be friends premise, and still be its own unique, modern creation. Writer-director Leslye Headland, as a follow up to the bawdy girls’ night out film “Bachelorette,” accomplishes this by getting the sex out of the way first, and then making it off limits.
‘Sleeping With Other People’
DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland
STARRING: Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Jordan Carlos, Margarita Levieva
RATED: R GRADE: B-
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
Headland knows that the litmus test is not the theoretical happy ending, but the characters — and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) prove to be some fascinating specimens. We meet them in college, where they lose their virginity to each other in a harried one night stand on a New York rooftop and then again a decade or so later in a meeting for sex addicts.
Neither are actually sex addicts, at least in the clinical sense. But Lainey can’t seem to stop cheating on her boyfriends with one old flame (Adam Scott), and Jake cheats as a way out of relationships he’s too scared to end with a normal breakup.
So Lainey and Jake decide, despite their mutual attraction and history, to be just friends. It is, quite simply, the story of two people who are prone to self-sabotage, falling in love and trying their hardest not to act on it.
But this is no exercise in prudish innocence. Sex is there. It’s everywhere actually, and not just in innuendo.
Some might be troubled by the fact that their exploits during this emotional relationship phase are not, you might say, equal. Jake gets to date and sleep with many other people. Lainey doesn’t.
We’re told this is her choice. That she can only recover by abstaining. When she does decide to go out with someone (a doofy single dad), Jake gets flustered and doesn’t want to hear about it. Lainey, with her doe eyes and acerbic, suffer-no-fools attitude, calls out Jake’s hypocrisy even if the movie might be abusing the idea that this is a choice to keep her character more pure.
But ultimately, their dynamic works, despite the faint alarm of outmoded gender expectations. Sudeikis and Brie have an easy, heady chemistry — although it does take a bit of imagination to accept them (7 years apart in real life) as college contemporaries. They make Lainey and Jake, despite their flaws and occasionally annoying tendencies, people you want to spend time with.
The supporting characters are almost non-entities, save for Jake’s married friends (played by Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage), who steal every scene they’re in. Amanda Peet, too, has her moments as one of Jake’s prospects, but she’s more plot device than character.
In the end, this isn’t exactly a portrait of modern dating. This is a fantasy world, where even a kindergarten teacher has a spacious New York apartment and scores of expensive outfits. And yet, despite the glossy, wholly unbelievable magazine quality of life here, “Sleeping With Other People,” both entertains and packs a startlingly solid emotional core.
The rom-com is not dead, in Headland’s hands at least.