Sleeping with Other People and the Fate of the Romantic Comedy

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Sophie has a (customarily excellent) review of the new movie on the site today, but I wanted to add briefly that it’s a particularly apt example of one of the difficulties facing romantic comedy that I wrote about for the magazine a couple of years ago. Specifically, over the years many of the social impediments that would-be lovers once had to overcome—difference in class, parental disapproval, etc.—have fallen by the wayside, forcing screenplay writers to invent ever-more-esoteric hurdles. (E.g., she’s a human being, he’s a zombie.)

Sleeping with Other People is simultaneously ultra-derivative (its plot self-consciously parallels When Harry Met Sally, right down to the line “men and women can’t be friends”) and desperate to find some radical new premise. So in this telling, the reason why the Best Friends Who Are Meant For Each Other can’t simply get together is—wait for it!—they’re both sex addicts. (What makes it worse, as Sophie noted, is that they’re actually not, but the movie insists on pretending they are.)

This desperation to overdo everything ruins what might otherwise have been a charming little rom-com, with likable stars, great co-stars, and some sharp bits of dialogue. (Any movie that will use the verb “gaslight” without explaining its meaning earns points from me.) The orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally is crassly broadened into a demonstration of female masturbation using a juice bottle; when the protagonists show up at the birthday party of a friend’s seven-year-old son, they have to be high on molly, so that she can strip her shirt off and dance with the kids in bra and short-shorts; and on and on.

The movie is constantly trying way, way too hard. Next time, just offer two relatable characters and let us enjoy watching them navigate the tricky shoals of love.