Writer-director Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People is, it’s fair to say, a lot less acerbic than her debut feature, Bachelorette, but there’s still a degree of raunchiness and vulgar bite to make this stand out from considerably tamer romantic comedies. Many early festival reviews have been keen to compare it to When Harry Met Sally (or give it the moniker “When Harry F**ked Sally”), and although there’s still a considerable gap in quality between the two, the comparison is not too off-base. It’s a worthy 21st century successor, with a similarly strong pair of leads at its centre, albeit a more disreputable, often mean-spirited duo than Harry and Sally.
Jake (Jason Sudeikis, his star persona successfully made more grounded here) and Lainey (Alison Brie, just wonderful) deflowered each other one night in college in 2002 and never saw each other again. A decade on, they both have a mutual draw towards promiscuity and self-sabotage. He’s a shameless womaniser, while she’s become something of a serial cheater with old flame Matthew (Adam Scott, who seemingly left his usual charm off set), the guy she was originally turning up to bone on the fateful night with Jake; he’s now a doctor with a pregnant fiancé (Katherine Waterston, sadly wasted in her few scenes). Lainey’s focus on Matthew has kept her from pursuing other relationships properly (Adam Brody features early on as one partner who ditches her after she comes clean about her unfaithfulness), despite an obvious (to us) sense that he’s never seen her as more than something for him to keep on the side. But that’s one of the cumulative strengths of the film in regards to what it explores: our heads and bodies will often read situations completely differently, and we can be powerless to restrain ourselves from the pull of lust, regardless of whether or not that lust has any tie to something arguably more meaningful.
And so, the film’s central narrative thrust (heh) becomes all the more compelling. Jake and Lainey re-meet at a sex addicts meeting, reconnect as emotionally open friends, and (rationally) establish a set of rules to maintain a chaste friendship for their hope of bettering themselves. As is the case when Harry met Sally, becoming a couple without being a couple proves a bit of a struggle.
Credit must be given to a game supporting cast, which also includes Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, but Brie steals the film. She’s had an almost chameleonic quality to her film and television roles to date (see all those people who don’t realise Community’s Annie and Mad Men’s Trudy are played by the same person), and Sleeping with Other People offers a perfect example of her comedic and dramatic range within the one performance; her sliding between tortured obsession to leading kids in a David Bowie group dance while high on ‘Molly’ (yes, this happens) feels an utterly natural, credible progression, rather than at all jarring in tone. Whisper this, but she may actually be better in this than Meg Ryan as Sally. More leading roles, now.
Headland’s screenplay fires a couple of blanks, which serves to only highlight some of the more token traditional rom-com tropes still on offer here. That said, when Sleeping with Other People does hit — which is a lot of the time — it’s an invigorating spicing up of formula; a winning balance of hedonism and heart that’s unapologetic about either quality.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently a contributing editor at PopOptiq, a writer for VODzilla.co, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.