Director: Leslye Headland
Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie
For years people have been writing that the romantic comedy is dead - financially by no longer making money (though, given the scarcity of studio attempts in the last decade and given that simply declaring that anything geared towards women fails to turn a profit is generally preferred to actually testing the assumption, I think you have to take that notion with a grain of salt), and creatively by being stymied by how entrenched the storytelling is in tropes. Every once in a while, there's also an announcement that the genre is showing signs of life courtesy of a new movie that gets enthusiastic champions in some critics. You treat these announcements with caution and, if you see the movie in question, you may be pleasantly surprised or you may wonder what the fuss was about. With Sleeping with Other People, my reaction fell somewhere in between. Some of it is good, some of it is marked by the same vaguely sexist notions that pervade the genre, nothing about it is transcendent, and per usual the supporting players are more interesting than the leads. But compared to some of the other movies Netflix has recommended to me (*cough*The Canyons*cough), this is a masterpiece.
The couple is Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie), who meet in college, lose their virginity to each other, and go their separate ways. Years later they run into each other again at a meeting for sex addicts, though both claim that they aren't actually sex addicts. Lainey is there because her therapist believes the group will help her move past her "love addiction," which expresses itself destructively in the form of a years' long on-again/off-again affair with the man to whom she had wanted to lose her virginity in college, and who has been stringing her along ever since despite now being married with a baby on the way. Jake, meanwhile, is there at the urging of his friends who are concerned about his inability and disinterest in maintaining a monogamous relationship. Although they remain attracted to each other and even end up going out on a date, they decide that they ought to just be friends so that they can each have at least one relationship with a member of the opposite gender that doesn't end up getting screwed up because of sex.
While Lainey spends much of her time trying to avoid getting reeled back in by her former lover, which includes taking steps to pursue her dream of going to medical school and getting briefly involved with a man she meets through Jake's friends, Jake dates around and tries to make something out of the sustained flirtation he's been enjoying with Paula (Amanda Peet) who, having run of the company that has bought the start-up founded by Jake and his friend Xander (Jason Mantzoukas), tells him that nothing can happen between them because their work situation would make it inappropriate. Undeterred, Jake continues his pursuit and eventually wins Paula over, only to commit the worst kind of faux pas at the worst possible moment because he's fallen in love with Lainey. She's fallen in love with him, too, but she's now intending to move to Michigan for school and, besides, if they were to get together and re-introduce sex into their relationship, it would just destroy it... right?
By and large, Sleeping with Other People does a number of things right, including the fact that it adopts a non-judgmental stance with respect to Jake and Lainey's sex lives, by which I mean that while the people around them might judge them and at times try to shame them, the film itself isn't trying to slut shame either of them or make the point that their sexual histories mean that there's something wrong with them. The film's attitude towards sex is a lot less rigid than you typically find in romantic comedies, in addition to being refreshingly frank. That said, the film doesn't truly and completely escape the gender biases that tend to define the genre and shape its narratives, which makes Jake as a character something of a problem, which in turn makes the relationship between Jake and Lainey something of a problem.
The first time we meet Jake as an adult (as opposed to the prologue which is funniest for trying to pass off 40-year-old Sudeikis as a college student by simply mussing up his hair), he's chasing a woman who's mad at him because she just found out that he slept with her sister and, when he finally catches up to her, he proceeds to mansplain her feelings to her and tell her that she's being dumb for caring who else he sleeps with (though, to the film's credit, it then allows that woman to push him off the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic). His relationship with Lainey is characterized by scenes where he's either teaching her something or talking her down when she's emotionally unmanaged, and the more their friendship grows, the more her life outside of him shrinks. When the film opens, they both have their own best friend characters to confide in - for Jake it's Xander, for Lainey it's Kara (Natasha Lyonne) - but as the story goes on, Kara disappears, while Jake's social circle seems to become Lainey's social circle, so that rather than merging their social lives, she's simply being absorbed into his. And then, at the end, he decides to declare his love and tells Lainey that he wants her to move back to New York so that they can be together, even though she's in Michigan for med school and he's made millions selling his start up and has just lost his job. If it means that much to you dude, then you make the move.
That aside, Sleeping with Other People is generally inoffensive and sometimes even quite sharp, even if it's never nearly as revolutionary as its loudest champions might claim and might best be described as When Harry Met Sally for a more sexually open era. As the central couple, Sudeikis and Brie are fine and have a relaxed, easy going chemistry together that sells the friendship aspect of their characters' relationship, if not necessarily the romantic aspect. It's saying something, however, that the funniest scene in Sleeping with Other People isn't in the film itself, but runs during the credits, and doesn't involve either Sudeikis or Brie, but Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, who plays his character's wife. Watching those two riff off of each other for a few minutes was more than enough to make me wish that those characters had been the focus of the entire film, their rapport making for the gem in an otherwise not particularly remarkable film.