In Sleeping With Other People, Romance Means Laughter And Pain In Equal MeasurePosted: September 22, 2015
Being in love can result in many different things, and when you combine a couple’s natural chemistry with a great deal of anxiety and sexual awkwardness it can often lead to comedy, something that rom-coms often capture very well. But only a few rom-coms really sell the “rom” part of the equation to me, and even fewer convey the other major factor in any romantic relationship: pain. As often as love can lead to laughter and swooning, it can also lead to hurt feelings and bitter tears, as even the most stable and loving of couples are no doubt aware. It is this feeling that Sleeping With Other People captures better than almost any rom-com I can recall. Writer/director Lesley Headland perfectly expresses the highs and the lows of being in love, and how difficult it can be to accept both sides of the equation in pursuit of a real relationship, and the result is nothing less than one of my favorite films of the year.
One of the great rom-com tropes, going back to the classic When Harry Met Sally, is the Man-And-Woman-Try-To-Be-Friends-But-Fall-In-Love plot, and while WHMS handles this plot incredibly well, consensus is that it’s many imitators have failed to live up to its lofty example. Sleeping With Other People, however, handles such a plot at least as well as its predecessor. What Headland does here is have these characters fully acknowledge to themselves and each other from the beginning that they do have sexual chemistry, and they do like each other, and they then jointly make the choice not to date or have sex. By doing this, Headland actually ramps up the tension instead of deflating it, and also separates sex and love in a way that few rom-coms are able to accomplish. Furthermore, it makes it clear that the true stakes of the film are not whether human sexuality will interfere with an intersex friendship, but whether two emotionally damaged people are able to be truly intimate with each other or anyone else. While the end result does still boil down to “will they or won’t they”, it’s handled with an added degree of nuance and emotional depth here.
That emotional depth is what makes Sleeping With Other People so mature and so romantic for me, as it grapples with the fact that emotional intimacy is much more powerful than physical intimacy, and why people are so afraid of it. In this story, Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) are both emotionally broken people, who use their sexuality as a buffer against their emotions. When they become friends and start connecting over their shared flaws, they find themselves frightened and intimidated by the emotional connection as a result. Both characters are self-aware enough to recognize how and why they fuck up relationships, and that self-awareness drives them to keep each other at arms’ length, even as they fall more and more in love with each other. In turn, they start more stable and more adult relationships with others in an attempt to build on/distract from their mutual love, but it’s all destined to fail. It ends up being a great irony, that these two people who are capable of such intimacy with each other attempt to resist that intimacy for fear of losing that intimacy, and that irony fuels the painful yearning and romantic honesty that makes this film something special.
The romance and the intimacy is largely aided by the performances of the two leads, as good as I’ve ever seen them here. Both Sudeikis and Brie own these roles, handling the drama and humor alike with a great deal of legitimate emotion, while having a great deal of chemistry with each other. Sudeikis has never been as emotionally earnest in anything else I’ve seen him in as he is here; he captures Jake’s gradual emotional awakening with a great deal of subtlety to balance out his usually-snarky demeanor. And as good as Sudeikis is, Brie might be better; she captures Lainey’s frantic sexual frustrations with a ton of raw desperation without ever seeming insane, and makes her heartbreak incredibly tangible. The supporting cast is impressive as well, as Adam Scott does tremendous work playing against type as a major antagonistic figure, while Amanda Peet is very charming and confident in her role as Jake’s alternative love interest. But the real supporting MVPs are Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, playing Jake’s married friends. The two of them have a great back-and-forth banter throughout the film, quietly representing everything that Jake and Lainey avoid as the plot progresses.
Of course you only assemble a cast like that if you plan to bring the funny, and Sleeping With Other People does that very well indeed. One thing that I’ve found in many of my favorite films is how humor is used to humanize and reveal characters, which is what Headland and her cast do incredibly well. It’s that mentality that informs pretty much all of the humor in the film. Every joke sequence, from Lainey’s dance routine to Jake’s Female Masturbation Tutorial, reveals a little bit more about the characters and makes us like them better; it’s notable that Adam Scott is the only one who is never funny, given that he is such a villainous force in the story. It’s also worth noting that for a sex comedy, the comedy is often actually sexy, for both the characters and audience alike. Among other things, it helps convey the tension between Jake and Lainey, even as its character-driven nature keeps things from being wholly sexual.
As my appreciation for rom-coms continues to grow, I have become more aware of the genre’s potential for quality; I no longer write off romantic comedies as a talentless wasteland. That being said, Sleeping With Other People stands out as a truly terrific example of the genre, for not just being funny, but for also being achingly, painfully romantic as well. The important thing to remember about adult relationships is that they are hard, not just in a pratfall/awkwardness fashion but in a deep-seeded and emotionally destructive fashion. Sleeping With Other People embraces this without reservation, and the end result is all the sweeter for characters and audience alike.