Monday, September 14, 2015

Sleeping With Other People (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Leslye Headland


The dynamic of a film like Sleeping With Other People is interesting. It's very dependent on its cast for entertainment, and luckily for the film, it's stars are Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, two actors whose comedic charms are worthy of star-level fame, but who never seem to quite get there. But the film's script (penned by the director, Leslye Headland) seems packed with ideas about sex, gender and basic relationship ethics. If these two forces were on the same page, we'd probably have the best romantic comedy of the year, but alas, that's not always the case. Saturday Night Live veteran Sudeikis and Community all-star Brie seem poised for a Apatow-esque send off of the classic When Harry Met Sally... friends-with-benefits plot, but their antics rub against the sentimentality that Headland imbues in the story. We've seen plenty of movies about two beautiful people who swear to stay friends despite an obvious attraction to one another, but Sleeping With Other People is the only film within this subgenre that really wants you to believe that these two friends won't get together. It wants to earn a prize for not Jim-and-Pam'ing us, but we know all along that that's exactly what's going to happen. It's hedging its bets as a "serious" comedy, instead of really shining as a film that delivers on what's best: giving its two stars free reign.

On one lowly night, in a dorm hall in Columbia University, Lainey (Brie) runs into Jake (Sudeikis) after failing to hook up with Matthew Sovochek, a man Jake proclaims to be the most boring man in the whole dorm. Not that Jake's night was any more glorious, he was sitting in his room watching porn. After a night of conversation, the two realize that they're both virgins and decide to end it with each other. Jake and Lainey end up not seeing each other for over a decade, where they meet at a sex addicts' meeting. Neither is any better at romance. Jake has become a rampant womanizer, whose go-to move to end uninteresting relationships is just to cheat because break-ups are too hard; while Lainey seems to sabotage every relationship she attempts since she's still hopelessly hung up on Matthew Sovochek (Adam Scott), constantly meeting up with him for sexual rendevouz even though he's on the verge of getting married. When Jake and Lainey reunite, they spend a night sitting in a Chinese restaurant confessing all of their sexual foibles and knowing their own inabilities to manage sex and relationships, agree that they should just stay friends. While the obligatory sexual tension arises, Jake and Lainey set up a safe word ("mousetrap", short for "dick in a mousetrap") and roam precariously around the various landmines that could lead to them in bed together.

While Lainey uses her new friendship to help her get over her hangups with Matthew, Jake does anything he can to get the thought of sex with Lainey out of his mind. Jake is an app designer with his partner Xander (a hilarious Jason Mantzoukas), who have just sold their product to a major tech company and stand to make millions of dollars over the next few years. Their boss is Paula (Amanda Peet), a professional beauty who Jake makes it his goal to pursue with relentless enthusiasm. Lainey was a med school applicant who's life was derailed (we're led to assume by Matthew) and she is now a kindergarten teacher. These details add up to give Sudeikis a lot of themes and characters to play with, while Brie has so little that the script has to throw her a truth-telling lesbian best friend (played with the veteran consistency of Natasha Lyonne) just so she can have a single scene without a man. You'd think a film by Headland would right the scales a little more liberally, especially considering that she's the mind behind Bachelorette, one of the smarter comedies about women that's come out recently. But this film hits all the same numbers of a 90's Gary Marshall film, except with more sex and more four-letter words. That the film tries to treat Jake's emotionally destructive philandering as endearing, while treating Lainey's wrong albeit monogamous infidelities like mortal sin felt a bit off to me. A smarter script would have taken this dichotomy and said something about it, but Sleeping With Other People backs away meekly in its attempt.

Luckily, the film still has Sudeikis and Brie, and say what you want of Headland's script, she still manages to coax wonderfully nuanced comedic performances, even in roles that don't necessarily deserve it. Sudeikis has played this role in films before, but this is the first opportunity he's been given as a lead. He's obviously more comfortable in funnyman mode, than in the few scenes of emotional sincerity that the movie gives him, but most like the character of Jake, his boyishness always seems to wipe away the smudges presented on the surface. To my knowledge, this is the only time Brie has ever gotten a lead role in a film, and it quite possibly could be the only one (I hope not - she has a lot more to offer even with what we see here). Lainey is stunted a lot more than Jake is in terms of comedy. Most of laughs are ones that Brie has to find, they're not gifted in the script. The chemistry she shares with Sudeikis helps, but spending years working with the main cast of Mad Men and Community (two shows that have only one thing in common: greatness) has obviously shown her how to act in a variety of different ways. Throw in hysterically funny supporting roles from Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage (playing his wife), and you get an ultimately satisfying comedy which gives you plenty of laughs, but very little in the way of insight on romance.

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