Writer-director Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People is exactly the kind of movie at which David Wain took aim with his sublime rom-com parody They Came Together. It’s a New York-set love story that reappropriates the timeworn formulas of the ’90s will-they-or-won’t-they comedy with a straight face—a fidelity that’s not inherently objectionable, but which becomes trying when a Wain-like rimshot can be so easily imagined following every instance of reflexive and unapologetic cliché, of which there are many.
The couple at the story’s center, undeviating ladykiller Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and meek charmer Lainey (Alison Brie), share a cute backstory and a psychological dilemma: They lost their virginity to one another in college and now, related or not, harbor mild sex addictions. Their courtship is sprinkled with largely unfulfilling side flings, and when it’s time for the narrative to hurry up, Lainey reveals that she’s been accepted to med school out of town, one of the oldest ticking-clock devices in the book—and one of several screenwriterly methods used to engineer the various separations and reunions that pave the way for the inevitable happy ending.
Aside from a gratuitous sight gag where a character’s water breaks in public, and a scene where Jake picks apart a girlfriend’s insecurities a bit too ruthlessly, the mean-spiritedness of Headland’s Bachelorette is mercifully gone. In its place is the bubbly chemistry of Sudeikis and Brie, who energize Headland’s mechanical shot/reverse-shot cutting patterns and rise above the script’s awkward attempts at hipness: Aaron Sorkin, Wes Anderson, and Mark Zuckerberg are name-dropped as if part of a secret Lower East Side vernacular, and Ludlow St. indie-rock mainstay Pianos appears as the ensemble’s club of choice at one point. Sudeikis and Brie’s investment in their characters’ respective quirks mines emotional truth: A clitoris-stimulation tutorial featuring a water bottle becomes an unlikely confirmation of the harmony between Jake’s brazenness and Lainey’s timidity, and the impatience aroused by sitting through yet another dance vignette set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” is eased by Brie’s distinct loose-limbed charisma.
Even with all this tête-à-tête dynamism, however, the trajectory of the film’s central romance proves stunted by its reliance on formula. Upon reuniting for the first time since their adolescent fireworks, Jake and Lainey agree to withhold sex so as to not expose themselves to vulnerabilities in the event that things don’t work out between them, even establishing an arbitrary safe word to mutually deflect developing urges. Headland evidently understands that showing sex on screen can often be the purest exterminator of erotic intimacy, but by otherwise not shying away from its representation via Jake and Lainey’s flights of promiscuity, the film ends up with a chaste view of human affection: Sex, in terms of the narrative, is a destructive result of attraction, not the natural expression of it. Of course, sustained abstinence is ultimately affirmed as its own sort of foreplay when the couple gets hitched in the film’s schmaltzy finale. But as Jake and Lainey trade sweet nothings while skipping off to a hotel room, the scene, unbeknownst to itself, feels perilously closer to Wain’s self-conscious inanity than to the moving innuendos of sexual release found in the greatest Hollywood romantic comedies.