About 10 or so years ago, two things happened that arguably doomed romantic comedies for the decade to come. The first was the release of The Notebook in 2004, which sparked the beginning of the Nicholas Sparks Industrial Complex, sucking up all available emotional sincerity into a giant vortex of tears and walks on the beach and American towns preserved in time. The second was the ascendancy of Judd Apatow, whose brilliance prompted filmmakers everywhere to adopt the now-well-worn formula of kidults trying to find love. No longer would circumstance get in the way of two people getting together; instead, it was the people themselves whose assholery or manbabyness or sadomasochistic impulses were the issue that had to be overcome.
Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People is a film very much in the contemporary rom-com mold, in that there’s very little standing between its two protagonists other than their own worst tendencies, and thus not a whole lot to enjoy other than a series of increasingly exhausting attempts to be subversive. Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) meet in 2002, when he sees her drunkenly attempting to break down the door of a TA in his dorm and intervenes before she’s thrown off campus. Striking up an instant rapport, the pair lose their virginity to each other and then never talk again until a second run-in at a sex-addiction meeting 12 years later.
Neither is actually a sex addict—Lainey is obsessed with the TA from the first scene, now a dull gynecologist (Adam Scott) who’s been cheating on his fiancée with her, and Jake is the kind of guy who sleeps with his girlfriend’s best friend and then blames her getting upset about it on the “societal insecurity” that pits women against each other.
There is, to be clear, absolutely nothing preventing them from acting on their obvious mutual attraction, but also nothing else to draw out the next 90 minutes. So for reasons that remain mysterious, Jake and Lainey decide to be just friends: Friends who go lingerie shopping together and teach each other how to masturbate (a new low for mansplaining) and have a safe word (“mousetrap”) for when they feel they’re getting too turned on by each other. And it almost works, mostly because Brie gives Lainey a frenetic, goofy energy that makes her sympathetic when she should be insufferable, and Sudeikis has always excelled at making narcissistic sleazeballs more compelling than they have any right to be.
The pair are buffeted by a superb cast of supporting actors who mostly seem more worthy of their stories being told. Adam Brody excels in a too-short scene as Lainey’s douchepoet Brooklynite boyfriend; the kind of deeply supportive and sensitive individual who loudly touts his feminist credentials until something happens to provoke his latent misogyny. (“You’re not a sex addict,” he sobs to Lainey after she reveals she’s cheated on him. “You’re just a whore.”)
Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage play Jake’s best friend and his wife, who’re charmed rather than irked when Jake and Lainey show up to their child’s birthday party rolling on molly and steal scenes to the extent that they’re given the closing credits to themselves. Scott, disguised by clear-rimmed glasses, a well-manicured mustache, and an air of total charmlessness, makes the case that he’s the most versatile comic actor of his generation. And Natasha Lyonne plays Kara, a friend so lazily written she leaves a message on Lainey’s voicemail wishing her a “happy Christmas, or Hanukkah, or whatever you’re into” because she doesn’t know what her BFF’s religion is.
Still, Brie and Sudeikis struggle occasionally with their dialogue, which gets weighed down heavily by Headland’s roots writing for theater (her breakout play, Bachelorette, about a group of toxic women whose manifold addictions are provoked when the girl they used to bully gets married, was adapted into a 2012 movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Rebel Wilson). “I do believe there are exactly three points we should discuss,” Jake says while chasing his girlfriend down the street, sounding more like he’s participating in a Republican primary debate than having an actual conversation with another human person. “Sometimes I dress up in lingerie just to feel something,” Lainey adds, apropos of nothing. And the pace is ponderous, with Jake getting caught up in a side relationship with his boss (Amanda Peet, almost impossibly charming) and Lainey dating a handsome but basic lawyer (Marc Blucas) who mostly serves as scenery.
Despite its persistent efforts to defy propriety (a Gatorade bottle acting as a makeshift vagina, Lainey doing an MDMA-fuelled slow-mo striptease in front of 6-year-olds), Sleeping With Other People lives and dies by rom-com tropes. There are meet-cutes, screaming fights in the rain, drawn-out dinners in crappy restaurants that act as verbal foreplay, nights when Jake and Lainey share beds and gaze at each other without going any further, and walks in the park on idyllic New York days. It is, Headland has said, “When Harry Met Sally for assholes.” The virtue of subversive rom-coms is that they’re as messy and difficult and maddening as real-life relationships are; the peril is that watching people who are resolutely stuck in their teenage mindset try to figure out growing up is harder to make charming than it seems. And how rebellious can something be, after all, when it’s been the standard for more than a decade?