As in her debut feature, Bachelorette, writer-director Leslye Headland again manages to find some edgily intriguing ways to refresh a somewhat familiar rom-com setup in Sleeping with Other People. With its New York-based central male-female pair confiding in each other about their love lives and basically attempting to maintain a platonic friendship, the film sounds like a modern-day variation on When Harry Met Sally… But unlike Harry and Sally in the Rob Reiner film, the central relationship begins with sex, as Jake (Jason Sudeikis) first encounters an angry, horny Lainey (Alison Brie) in college in 2002 and ends up being her first. The next time they encounter each other, however, is roughly 12 years later—at a meeting for sex addicts. As we get to know them better, we discover that it isn’t necessarily sex addiction that fuels their behavior, but a deeper series of fears and hang-ups. Refreshingly, though, the film doesn’t offer any pat psychologizing in order to try to explain their neuroses. It may all have something to do with that one fateful night in college during which they hooked up, but Headland doesn’t belabor the point, instead preferring to leave that possibility hovering in the background, hanging over their every fraught interaction as they attempt to carry on a friendship without succumbing to sexual desire.
Besides, Headland is often too busy inviting us to simply enjoy hanging out with her two main characters to worry too much about digging into inner traumas. It’s evident from the get-go that they’re the perfect match: Their comfort in talking about the most sexually frank of matters is immediate, their chemistry electric. Much of the pleasure of Sleeping with Other People lies in simply watching Sudeikis and Brie sustain their characters’ infectious rapport throughout the entirety of the film, dissecting Jake and Lainey’s romantic experiences with uninhibited gusto. Headland respects and encourages her actors’ chemistry, allowing many of their scenes together to run on past their seeming endpoints, allowing us to bask in their in-the-moment enthusiasm.
The film, however, isn’t without its serious undercurrents. Lainey is introduced directing a tantrum at medical student Matthew (Adam Scott), to whom she originally expected to shed her virginity. Twelve years later, she’s still hung up on him, now a gynecologist, and to the point where she continually cheats on her current boyfriend (Adam Brody); she remains smitten even though Matthew is technically engaged to another woman who’s about to have his child. The scene in which she admits her infidelity to her boyfriend is as emotionally annihilating as it is darkly funny; a subsequent meet-up with Matthew at his office—which climaxes with a quickie on his table—trembles with tension. As for Jake, he basically seems interested in having sex with any woman who moves, including his boss (Amanda Peet), but he’s hardly oblivious to the self-destructiveness of his behavior, occasionally opening up to both Lainey and co-worker/friend Xander (Jason Mantzoukas) about his wish to possibly settle down by finding, for once, a woman he’s actually scared to lose. Headland indulges whiplash contrasts of raunchy humor and tender drama; she’s as interested in being true to the emotional realities of characters and situations as she is mining this premise for laughs, and thankfully Sudeikis and Brie are willing to follow their director’s lead.
Which is why it’s disappointing that Sleeping with Other People, for all its gestures toward taking a more thoughtful approach toward genre tropes, ultimately ends up conforming to them. Though the film’s early stages suggest that Headland will take a refreshingly subversive perspective toward Jake and Lainey’s more liberal attitudes toward sex and relationships, the standard pro-monogamy ideology gradually reasserts itself as the film’s suspense eventually hinges on whether or not they’ll finally achieve the inevitable romantic consummation that they’re consciously denying themselves. That’s a shame considering the bracingly sour edge of Bachelorette, which suggested a more caustic sensibility than this crowd-pleasing follow-up delivers. In the end, there’s only so much the unapologetic frankness of the characters’ dialogue and the stars’ irresistible chemistry can do to camouflage the conventionality at its core.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
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