‘Sleeping with Other People’
Director:
Leslye Headland
Stars: Alison Brie, Jason Sudeikis
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

We may be too hard on rom-coms, and with reasonable cause. They can, even the better ones, feel homogenous and programmatic — comfort food that at their worst seems spoiled and causes cultural indigestion. When a film like “Trainwreck” and the new “Sleeping with Other People” begins by offering a novel, darker and/or more realistic twist on the genre, it can be easy to turn on it when it’s revealed it’s actually not a total explosion of tradition. Both films, both written by women (and in “People”’s case, directed too), turn out to be more indebted to convention than they initially let on. But conventions shouldn’t cause kneejerk alarm, and both are subversive in other, more quiet but no less worthwhile ways.

Where “Trainwreck” was a relationship movie, “Sleeping with Other People” is of the “will they or won’t they” breed. Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) meet-cute in college, bond over salty language and Blues Traveler jokes and whimsically hook up. They don’t reconnect for another 10-plus years, when both suffer from a mild strain of sex addiction. Lainey can’t help but cheat on everyone she dates with longtime crush Matthew (Adam Scott) who, rather than a studly renta-hunk, is a dorky, emotionally manipulative, mustachioed OB-GYN who’s not even that good at shtumping. Jake, meanwhile, is a jerk who charismatically rattles off tortured but eloquent rationalizations for why he can’t keep it in his pants. They reunite-cute and decide that, obvious sparkage aside, they should stay in the friend zone. Why? Because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise.

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Except there would be a movie otherwise because both Lainey and Jake are both incredibly messed up. She’s beyond fragile and he’s a commitment-phobe, and before they get to the inevitable — or will the inevitable not be so inevitable? — they have to do some me-work. They patch themselves up together, but neither is actively trying to fix the other. And they’re both jerks. This is not just a rom-com for cynics but a rom-com for assholes — the kind of genre piece where the pleasant montages of fun days include Jake pushing Lainey in front of a serious jogger and people bark things like “My love is conditional.” 

Writer-director Leslye Headland (“Bachelorette”) knows her rom-com cliches and she tries to subvert and embrace them in equal measure. And she freely opens the stage to obvious ad-libbing — to pro improv-ers like Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage — but has also clearly written things like Jake’s hyper-articulate takedowns and rationalizations for things no one would think to rationalize out loud. Despite being about a man and a woman, it’s subtly very much a woman’s movie. The sex talk is raunchy and graphic, but geared to the female perspective, even when Jake is rhapsodizing on his game. At one point he launches into an epic tutorial to Lainey on handy sex, a monologue naughtier than anything in the Kevin Smith canon. But his focus is on how to get the woman off, not just himself. It’s the kind of thing most male screenwriters would never dream to include.

Despite the bubbly grouchiness and the occasional slides into bleak territory, this is all heading for a more classical ending. That’s not a bad thing, and it truly seems thing could go either way, right up until when they don’t. Headland makes sure to complicate things just enough, giving each a palatable suitor, in Jake’s case a boss (Amanda Peet) who could very well drag him into romantic bliss. Even if it does turn traditional, it’s done sufficient rooting in its characters’ neuroses and problems and charted a deeper kind of relationship than mere pairing off. The way it plays things, calling what happens between its two leads mere “love” almost seems reductive.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge