Romantic comedies never seem to receive the same level of respect as other genre contemporaries. They’re dismissed as being “just chick flicks” or “too girly,” targeting a largely female demographic by studios that don’t feel the need to pander to their female audience as they do with their male. When Harry Met Sally is a staple in filmmaking and smart writing, yet Annie Hall is more likely to get the push because even though there’s romance, and comedy, it’s not a rom-com. Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve got Mail are two films that perfectly capture the sweetness in romantic beginnings because it takes the stance of both sides, allowing both characters time to grow and learn, rather than just being someone for the other character to chase.
This is why Sleeping With Other People is so good and so wonderfully infectious. The comedy is modern, it’s a little raunchy, but it cares deeply about presenting even footed, and compassionate portraits of its leads. The humor isn’t derivative in watching the two get together, or even in the case of this film, stay apart, but rather from the antics they get up to from simply being in one another’s company. Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) are serial daters, finding themselves incapable of making long lasting relationships. In Jake’s case, it’s that he’s never found a woman who he truly loves enough to commit and for Lainey, it’s because she’s spent a good ten years hung up on a college crush, Michael (a nerdy Adam Scott). The two run into one another after not seeing each other in over a decade, at a sex addicts meeting no less, and decide that in order to avoid ruining any potential friendship, they should refrain from sleeping together. Obviously with the nature of the film, there’s the expected will they, won’t they tug but it’s based out of a well earned investment in the characters and their relationship. Brie and Sudeikis have an effortless, lived in chemistry, chemistry that speaks to the character’s relationship, one that’s a little too close for “just friends” but perpetually on the cusp of that fearful idea of ruining their friendship through romance. Or, more specifically in this case, ruining it through sex. Brie is emotionally bruised and I was impressed with how much soul she put into Lainey, and how relatable her own issues became. Sudeikis, meanwhile, is the most likable he’s ever been, and a scene between him and Brie late into the movie, show both characters as emotionally vulnerable and laid as bare as we’ve seen them. This is the finest acting Sudeikis has demonstrated to date.
Directed and written by Leslye Headland (who shot the equally as interesting but vastly different Bachelorette), she makes sure that her characters feel honest. There are choices that Headland makes within the script that I want to applaud not only as a film fan, but as someone who loves to see accurate portrayals of women on screen; women who are flawed but loving, insecure but radiant in their charm. Brie’s Lainey is a female character I’ve wanted to see so long onscreen. Her pursuit of Michael is a look at the self-doubt that plague people when they’re lonely, or in need to be loved. She’s put Michael on a pedestal for so long because he didn’t choose her and that left its mark so even though he treats her badly and continues to push her aside for others, she pursues him because she believes that if he loves her, it means she’ll be able to love herself.
That, and the film’s frank discussion about female sexuality (in such a refreshingly positive manner) has made Sleeping With Other People one of the surprise delights of 2015. Too often does film try to diminish women’s agency when it comes to sex. Whether it be Blue Valentine being nearly slapped with a harsher rating due to an oral sex scene, or the near constant sexualization of women’s bodies in the media, women are typically relegated to being the prop rather than an active participant. Headland’s film is like a sigh of relief, as the female lead isn’t slut shamed for any of her sexual escapades, and there’s a particular scene including a jar that will go down as their “I’ll have what she’s having” moment. It’s the positive message about sex that should be portrayed more often in film, and one that I couldn’t be happier to see.
The film’s resolute refusal to judge it’s character’s only makes it that much stronger. Lainey and Jake spend the film trying to keep one another at arm’s length all the while they’re teaching one another how to love themselves for the slightly broken people they are. It’s a film about owning your faults, learning how to grow from them and finding the person that makes you your best self. Neither character is short changed in service of the other.
Confident, funny and heartfelt, Sleeping With Other People is an assured step for Headland, showcasing a director who understands the rom-com genre and what makes it tick. Like last years terrific Obvious Child, the film is fearless in its depictions of good people caught in messy situations. Romantic comedies all too often focus solely on the laughs when they should also be largely focusing on the people. The romantic aspect, the connection between the two leads, that’s what draws viewers in. The comedic value is simply an added bonus and works best when the characters delivering the punchline or tumbling into the pratfall are likeable. Even better is when the humor is reflective on the character’s personality and mannerisms themselves. Headland’s film struck the perfect chord of both aspects: the comedy is hilarious (a scene where the two dance at a children’s birthday party is a particular highlight) and the romance was earned. We want these two characters to end up together, no matter their shortcomings, because we too have been proven that they’re at their best when they’re together.
Sleeping With Other People is now out in a limited release.