'Sleeping With Other People': Sundance Review

Tricky but ultimately endearing, this sharply observed romantic comedy has hidden shallows but also moments of greatness

Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie star as ex-lovers trying to be just friends in director Leslye Headland’s follow-up to ‘Bachelorette’

Described onstage at its Sundance premiere self-deprecatingly (and somewhat unfairly) by its writer-director, Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), as “When Harry Met Sally with assholes,” Sleeping With Other People is a brittle, bawdy, frequently funny romcom that might be too smart for its own good. Like several other new-generation romantic comedies Bridesmaids and other Judd Apatow-stable films, as well as TV’s Girls, for example it spikes the sugary structure of the genre with salty-sour notes that take it right to the edge of unpalatable for some mainstream tastes. Starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as ex-lovers struggling to stay just friends, it gets down and dirty about contemporary relationships but still keeps its bra on for the sex scenes. As such, it may struggle to find its audience, as did the now-cult Bachelorette, although with Sudeikis on board it may have more commercial potential in the right hands than the latter.

In the end, everything will depend on whether viewers buy the casting and the chemistry of the two leads. Those used to thinking of Sudeikis as a nebishy suburban father type on the back of his roles in the Horrible Bosses duo and We’re the Millers may struggle to accept his casting here as Jake, a horndog player who can talk nearly any woman into bed but can’t stay monogamous for more than a minute. His comic timing in the screwball-speed dialogue meshes well with Brie as love-interest Lainey, getting a chance to shine in the lead after outstanding supporting turns in TV’s Community and Mad Men, but they’re not always persuasive as a pair with the simmering, barely contained hots for each other.

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The big conceit of Headland’s screenplay is that Jake and Lainey lost their virginity to each other back in 2002 on a Columbia University dormitory rooftop but then never hooked up again until they re-meet in the present at a 12-step meeting for sex and love addicts. It’s implied that he never quite got over her, and his serial shagger ways reflect the fact that no woman ever measured up to her.

Interestingly, her psychology is less Movie Psych 101: before she even met Jake, Lainey was obsessed with Matthew Sobvechik (Adam Scott), a smug WASP type who in the present has been carrying on an affair with her while both of them pursue relationships with others. Somehow, the way Lainey has never gotten over Matthew is more convincing than the way Jake never got over her, and underneath the wisecracks and the backchat, Headland and Brie nail the way women can masochistically fixate on unobtainable love objects, worrying at longing like a sore tooth until an abscess forms.

Jake and Lainey convince themselves that their best course of treatment is to become friends rather than jumping straight into bed, despite their avowed mutual attraction (told, or rather shown, by the cringe-inducing device of having one or the other declaim “mousetrap” as a safe word when feeling aroused). And so begins a year-long platonic fling as they report back their sexual conquests and calamities with other people, all the while growing an emotional intimacy that everyone but them can see is more lasting and potential-filled than anything else they’ve got going on.

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Headland zigs the story when viewers might expect the script to zag, creating genuine tension in the last act that Jake and Lainey might not end up together, especially when he starts a relationship with his likeable but tough-minded boss, Paula (Amanda Peet, in fine form) and Lainey forges plans to leave town.

But if the film fulfills its duty by providing emotionally the romcom equivalent of a money shot, it delays the gratification in interesting ways. And even if the supporting characters are stock types for the genre the gently bickering married couple (Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage) who look on smilingly, the zinger-dispensing gay best friend (Natasha Lyonne) they’re well drawn enough to add heft and credibility to the film’s overall smart-mouthed, New York sophisticate milieu.

As if aware that no modern comedy can be complete without buzz-generating shock-tactic set pieces, Headland and the cast come up trumps in a scene where Jake shows Lainey how to masturbate using and empty tea bottle and again later where Lainey teaches some seven-year-olds how to dance while off her head on ecstasy. Elsewhere, some might find a brisk scene where one of Jake’s one-night stands (Anna Margaret Hollyman) bombards him with increasingly passive-aggressive (and then just aggressive) text messages even more sharply observed.

Visually, the film is professionally assembled but lacking in distinctive texture, and it's not above resorting to shamefully hokey devices to generate romantic atmosphere, such as a magic-hour boat ride down the river. The eclectic indie- and folk-inflected soundtrack choices, however, have more hip credibility and often underscore or provide counterpoint in interesting ways, particularly in a scene where Jake and Lainey lie chastely in bed and declare they love each other “for free” while a haunting, rhythmic instrumental track plays in the background. It’s possibly the film’s sweetest and oddest moment, and striking enough to make one wish it had more of the same.

Production companies: A Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Gloria Sanchez Productions presentation of a Gloria Sanchez Production
Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Adam Scott, Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne, Katherine Waterston, Adam Brody, Amanda Peet, Marc Blucas, Andrea Savage
Director/screenwriter: Leslye Headland
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Jessica Elbaum, Adam McKay, Will Ferrell
Executive producers: Jim Tauber, Carla Hacken, Matt Berenson, Bruce Toll
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Amy Williams
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Paul Frank
Music: Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau
Casting: Jennifer Euston, Emer O’Callaghan
Sales: IM Global
No rating, 92 minutes