After years of lazy studio-driven output, the romantic comedy genre is all but dead as far as the box office goes. With the genre’s descent in the mid-2000s came the ascent of raunchier comedies like Judd Apatow’s work. That style of comedy has dominated studio output for the last decade, with some hits and misses. In Sleeping with Other People, writer/director Leslye Headland has managed to take the R-rated style of those comedies and fuse it with some of the better works from the romantic comedy’s 80 and 90s heyday, resulting in a film that’s hilariously filthy and undeniably sweet.
Sleeping with Other People begins in 2002, with college students Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) meeting when Lainey is nearly removed from a dorm floor by an RA for banging on a boy’s dorm room door. Lainey was there to get her TA to sleep with her, and Jake keeps her from getting kicked out of the dorm. The two strike up a conversation where they’re both willing to be completely honest with each other, and it eventually comes out that both Jake and Lainey are virgins. They end up sleeping with each other as a one-night stand.
They next meet each other in the present day in a sex addict support group meeting. Jake is there because his girlfriend demanded it after Jake slept with her best friend, while Lainey is there on the advice of her therapist after admitting to her longtime boyfriend (Adam Brody) that she’s been having an affair. The other man in Lainey’s life is her OB-GYN, Matthew (Adam Scott) – who was also the TA she was seeking out in the film’s opening scene. They’ve been in a lengthy affair that, after Lainey’s confession, Matthew suggests they end since he’s just proposed to his girlfriend. They, of course, then have sex on his desk.
Jake and Lainey are both aware that they’ve not been able to create successful relationships in life, romantic or otherwise, so they decide to go on a date to test each other. The date is a success, but they opt for remaining friends, with a safe word in place in the event that either one of them becomes aroused: “dick in a mousetrap.” The friendship they strike up grows deep over the course of the film, as they’re able to talk to each other about their various romantic entanglements and teach each other tips to becoming better people. And also, sex tips. Think When Harry Met Sally, but with more detail about achieving that orgasm.
Headland keeps the film frequently hilarious, but she’s quick to show Jake and Lainey as real people, not just punchlines. For example, the scene where Lainey tells her boyfriend about her affair is surprisingly hilarious, but it’s immediately followed by Lainey running into a bathroom and having a breakdown. These two are aware of how messed up their situations are, and they just can’t seem to pull out of their patterns on their own.
Both Sudeikis and Brie are actors who have proven themselves capable of handling a wide range of emotions, but they’ve rarely had different roles that utilize this; Brie at least has a solid record, between her simultaneous roles on Community and Mad Men. Sudeikis makes Jake charming, while Brie makes Lainey smart. At their cores, though, Jake and Lainey are assholes. These are not characters who are immediately likable, and both roles rely heavily on their actors to make the audience root for them. But they are compatible, at least. They’re supported by a hilariously talented cast, including Jason Mantzoukas, Amanda Peet, Natasha Lyonne and Andrea Savage.
What makes Sleeping with Other People work is its decision to treat its characters like believable adults. They may be screw-ups in parts of their lives, but they’re also characters who are fleshed out and funny. Actions the characters take in the film have legitimate repercussions, and while the end is a satisfactory one, it’s not completely foregone. I wasn’t a fan of Headland’s previous film, Bachelorette, but it seems like Headland’s found a way to create characters who are assholes without making them unlikable. It’s an important distinction, and after Sleeping with Other People, I can only hope she can stick with this sort of balance.