Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis try being "just friends" while navigating a mutual tendency to abuse sex in this hilariously fresh rom com.
Sleeping with Other People
You won’t catch me complaining about rom-coms or decrying the genre as lifeless, well-worn, or ready for bed. One cannot blame a film genre for the laziness of writers, directors, and narrow-minded studios. The same trends we see in consumer products apply to filmmaking. If it works, mass produce it until the market oversaturates and the people demand something new. Leslye Headland is demanding something different. Demanding, and making. Her sophomore film—a follow up to 2012’s Bachelorette—Sleeping With Other People is rom-com 2.0. Or 10.0, who knows which iteration we’re really on, all I know is we are ready for it. Headland must have decided unrealistic banter, comedy based on error and miscommunication, and men being the only ones allowed to misuse sex was getting old. All of which I tend to agree with.
In Sleeping With Other People, Headland, who also wrote the film, presents the “just friends” scenario and frees it up to be honest and self-aware, making for that rare and highly sought after rom-com combo: emotionally fulfilling AND hilarious. If there is such thing as “organic” comedy, this is it. No one is genetically modifying the laughs in this film, they are all entirely deserved. Does that mean she goes light on the raunch or wickedness? Not for a second.
Starring Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, much of the film’s success falls on their mutual magnetism. Brie plays Lainey (but don’t worry she’s nothing like Laney Boggs from She’s All That), a kindergarten teacher with a longtime addiction to her always-unavailable college crush Matthew (Adam Scott). Lainey runs into the guy she lost her virginity to in college, Jake (Sudeikis), at a sex addicts meeting. Since their one-night tryst in college he’s become your typical serial polygamist, successful in his career—he’s just sold his startup to a large corporation led by a sexy CEO (Amanda Peet) he’s determined to nail—and totally absorbed in his sexual amusements. Jake and Lainey attempt a date but decide their mutual attraction will only feed into each other’s bad habit of abusing sex, deciding instead to remain friends.
What ensues is a modern update on When Harry Met Sally’s cynical approach to male-female friendships. Lainey and Jake keep the lines of communication between each other wide open, and similar to Meg Ryan’s famously enlightening lesson on the fake orgasms of woman, this film’s most talked about scene is likely to be when Jake goes into an in-depth (and visually illustrated) lesson on female masturbation. The two are so communicative as to inform each other when they are feeling attracted to the other, developing a safe-word: “mousetrap.”
The real heart of the film lies in their growing friendship and their increased dependence on one another. It’s a modern comedy that allows its characters to fall in love naturally, without the pressure of sex, while also providing plenty of sex throughout the film (with other people). The comedy of the film comes entirely from its honesty and openness, proving that mishaps, mistakes, and misperceptions aren’t the only way for romantic films to utilize comedy.
The dialog pushes Headland’s film far out of the realm of the usual rom-com as well. Not because it’s not bantery, but because the banter is surprising and realistically clever—with all the speed of Sorkin and the referential easter eggs of Gilmore Girls drained of un-believability. Contemporary audiences will appreciate the Millennial-style straight-forwardness and Lainey and Jake’s no-holds-barred conversation style. Throw in some irreverence—like taking drugs at a kid’s birthday party or Lainey’s adulterous weaknesses or Jake’s hesitancy in describing sex with a black woman—and it all adds up to a perfectly balanced amount of laughter and well-built romance.
Brie’s usual sweetness, most evidenced in her role in TV show Community, is balanced with some of the spirit we see her exhibit in AMC’s Mad Men as Trudy Campbell. She’s not a sucker, although she often returns to her hopeless romance with a married man, instead she’s a woman whose sexual desires have only been met by one man and she’s never known what it is to have emotional and sexual fulfillment in the same place. She’s not a victim, she never needs saving, she just needs a friend.
Sudeikis is also impressive, reigning in any lingering SNL silliness and playing as believably sexy and flawed, but not despicable. He could easily have made Jake appear creepy,—taking advantage of Lainey’s friendship—or pitiful—falling for a girl he may never get—but he stays equal parts damaged and dashing at all times.
They are surrounded by a great supporting cast including Jason Mantzoukas in my favorite role of his yet, and Natasha Lyonne playing both the mandatory best friend and mandatory gay best friend all at once, even if she’s not wholly believable as Lainey’s best friend. Adam Scott also plays against type as a nerdy scumbag, and Adam Brody goes big in his one early scene with Brie to hilarious effect.
The possibilities in romantic scenarios will never cease (though most romantic comedies tend to navigate to the same three or four), and Headland turns to one we’ve seen plenty of times before—the friendship-turned-romantic situation—but her approach is outgoing and unrestrained, not only with her humor but in the total transparency between her lead characters. These characters may be more clever than most people we know, more attractive, and more successful, but their friendship feels relatable and their flaws are actual which makes for heartier laughs and an aphrodisiacal love story.
A version of this review first ran as part of our 2015 Tribeca Film Festival coverage.