Nowadays, practically every romantic comedy is labeled “predictable” or “formulaic.” Movies like “Trainwreck,” though, have conclusively shown us that predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to this genre. A good old-fashioned romance story can be pleasing in its familiarity, and often the “unconventional” ending is simply the wrong ending for a given story. Writer-director Leslye Headland’s (“Bachelorette”) new rom-com, “Sleeping with Other People,” does fall back on some of the same conventions of the genre, but with some great jokes, a great cast and a few surprising touches, the movie succeeds at overcoming those pitfalls.
“Sleeping With Other People”
Jason Sudeikis (“Saturday Night Live”) and Alison Brie (“Community”) star as Jake and Lainey, two people who lost their virginity to one other. When Jake and Lainey run into each other at a sex addiction support group years later, they ignore their mutual attraction, and instead strike up a friendship based on the idea that sex ruins every relationship they have been in.
It’s a pretty silly premise, and it calls to mind the countless other rom-coms based on characters trying and failing to remain “just friends.” But the movie is surprising in its honesty. This isn’t building toward a revelation when the characters will realize their insecurities. From the beginning, it’s clear that Jake is a womanizer because he’s too afraid to actually make a lasting connection with anyone, and Lainey is hung up on her engaged ex, Matthew (Adam Scott, “Parks and Recreation”). Neither of these conflicts seem particularly fresh, but it does feel fresh how openly and honestly the characters work through their issues together. Jake and Lainey discuss sex positions, female ejaculation, penis size and masturbation, and their candor is both hilarious and refreshing.
Even if the beats of the story are mostly typical, there are little touches in the direction, script and acting. After Lainey has a surprisingly humiliating sexual experience, she lies back on the table and a ray of sunlight filters into the room, lingering for several seconds as she stews in self-loathing. As Jake delivers joke after hilarious joke, Lainey giggles in the background. And in one scene that will make you fall for Alison Brie (if you somehow haven’t already), Lainey teaches a group of kids at a birthday party how to dance.
At different points in the movie, the predictability of the ending shifts. As Jake and Lainey’s sexual tension builds and the two show clear signs of falling in love, it seems obvious that they’ll end up together. But as Headland cultivates her trope-subverting style with her naturalistic direction and well-written honesty, the possibility of an unconventional ending becomes more real. At one point about an hour into the movie, the story reaches an unexpected note of peace and acceptance, with the characters content in their platonic roles. In that one quiet moment as Jake and Lainey lie together and fall asleep, all the conflict falls away and the viewer gets the distinct feeling that it doesn’t really matter whether the characters do get together.
Unfortunately, the movie brings back the conflict in a somewhat unnecessary third act, shattering the sense of contentment by again raising the question of whether these characters belong together. For many viewers, Headland’s small sample of stylistic touches will be enough to overcome the inherent predictability of the genre. But it’s hard not to wish the film would be OK with stopping a little earlier and leaving things a little ambiguous. By the time the movie does resolve the will-they-won’t-they conflict, it feels a little false. The answer just doesn’t seem to matter as much as it did earlier on.
“Sleeping with Other People” doesn’t reinvent the romantic comedy like it sometimes aspires to, but that’s OK. With a supporting cast stacked with hilarious comedic actors including Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”), Andrea Savage (“Step Brothers”) and Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”), and a compelling pair of leads in Sudeikis and Brie, it succeeds in investing the audience in its conflict. By the time it ends, some of that investment has dwindled, but it’s still an admirable entry into the rom-com genre. When the laughs are constantly rolling, it’s hard to ask for much more.