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Sleeping With Other People proves that today’s romantic comedies don’t need to play games

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis are just trying to figure it out in Sleeping With Other People.
Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis are just trying to figure it out in Sleeping With Other People.
IFC

Honesty can be terrifying. Trusting someone else — or yourself — enough to be truly open can be exhilarating, freeing in a way that just isn’t possible when your defenses are up and ready to deflect any probing advances. But peeling back that defensive layer of skin to reveal the beating heart underneath can also be wrenching, painful in a way you never thought possible. It can mean staring into a mirror, or someone else's eyes, and wanting to smash the dumb reflection blinking back at you. It’s an emotionally fraught gamble — and the ultimate act of vulnerability.

Traditionally, romantic comedies have rejected embracing honesty in favor of flirting with it. Characters spend their time waffling between love and lust, casual connections and real commitments, people they like just fine and the people they can’t stop thinking about. In these earnest romantic comedies, the flirtation becomes a commitment the second honesty enters the equation. The credits roll, and we smile with the satisfaction of watching the inevitable play out, preferably with a wedding and/or funky dancing.

But something’s happened to the rom-com genre in the past few years. Movies that hew to the traditional treacle are nowhere near the box office draw they once were. Instead, a wave of "toxic" romances has rushed in, professing to be updated versions of the existing genre — rom-coms "with a twist." From Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck to FX’s You’re The Worst to The Mindy Project, anything approaching a romantic comedy recently has been wrapped in a layer of hostility, snark, or "can you believe this sappy shit?" irony. If you peel back that layer, though, you'll find the same exact meet-cutes, neuroses, and sweeping romantic gestures that have defined the genre from the beginning. Still, these new approaches to an old genre are solid efforts that keep romantic comedies relevant, even in a world where CGI and the quest for international revenue have driven more and more studio effort in the direction of superhero adaptations, sequels, and prequels.

Sleeping With Other People, released in limited theaters on September 11, is the latest in this new wave of romantic comedies. It is also the rare movie that takes on that fear of honesty in both a relentlessly funny and painfully recognizable way.

Sleeping With Other People might be filthy, but it still uses conventional rom-com structure

Twelve years after losing their virginities to each other, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) run into each other in a New York church basement, at a sex addicts anonymous meeting. It’s a fun longline — no doubt the one that sold the movie in the first place — but the movie lets go of that premise almost immediately, and is better off for it.

Jake and Lainey never go to another meeting. Instead, they go on a date, laugh about their past, and talk about their respective intimacy issues. They recognize a kindred spirit in each other, and decide not to jeopardize a potentially great friendship with sex. Sure enough, they become best friends — and more honest versions of themselves. They wonder whether men and women can be friends. They confuse the hell out of everyone around them. Eventually (or maybe it was immediately?), they fall in love.

If When Harry Met Sally were made in 2015, it might look an awful lot like Sleeping With Other People.

After kicking off with Jake and Lainey’s first times on the roof of a Columbia dorm, the movie speeds up to the present, wherein Jake is a serial cheater and Lainey can’t stop sleeping with a married gynecologist (an impressively bland Adam Scott). They talk things out, in graphic detail, with their best friends (Jason Mantzoukas and Natasha Lyonne, respectively). They talk to each other about their mutual attraction, laughing off the worst sexual attention with their chosen safe word. Jake even helps Lainey learn how to masturbate, in one of the film's most ridiculous and yet intimate scenes.

It's graphic, but don't forget: One of the most famous scenes in romantic comedy lore is the one in which Meg Ryan's Sally teaches Billy Crystal's Harry a loud lesson in fake orgasms. Romantic comedies have always been a little filthy. Historically, though, the filth has been more of a wink than a defining characteristic.

That is no longer the case.

Sleeping With Other People rejects implicit sex for explicit

When Jake and Lainey do sleep with other people, director Leslye Headland takes her time. Jake has sweaty, marathon sex in every corner of his bachelor pad. Lainey, miserable in her one-sided relationship but lost without it, has efficient and almost frantic sex on the doctor’s desk. Headland pushes the camera in so close on Brie’s face that you can’t help but squirm, being so close to this incredibly intimate moment. The angle is deliberately oppressive, but as the sun streams in through the office windows onto her face, you immediately understand what’s happening in Lainey’s mind. The entire experience, tawdry though it is, remains sun-dappled in her mind.

As a writer, Headland has no interest in sanitized dialogue. Bachelorette, her first movie (based on her play of the same name) was an unflinching portrayal of female friendship, heartbreak, and hostility. Her script for About Last Night brought David Mamet’s 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago to 2015 Los Angeles, where two couples fought and fucked without apology. Her characters across the board are at turns passionate, selfish, sexual, anxious, confident, and above all, human.

At first, sex is the driving force behind Sleeping With Other People. Jake and Lainey's sexual hangups brought them together, their sexual exploits are what keep them laughing as friends, and their sexual tension sets off a countdown clock to the inevitable.

But their journeys throughout the movie have less to do with sex than with their deep-rooted anxieties. The ones they thought they had buried deep enough to hide with charm and quips — until they met each other.

Sleeping With Other People shines thanks to the romantic comedy's not-so-secret weapon: a stellar cast

Brie and Sudeikis come down at a kid's party, like you do.

IFC

While Sudeikis and Brie hold down the photogenic lead front, their supporting cast keeps the world around them at turns wacky and grounded.

Lyonne has far less to do than she should as Lainey's straight-talking best friend, but Mantzoukas and his onscreen wife Andrea Savage are particularly good. Their concerned (but affectionate) relationship with Jake keeps him in context, but they're also very funny together as an exasperated (but affectionate) married couple. (Make sure you stay for a post-credits montage for more of Mantzoukas and Savage's expert riffing.) Adam Scott, who has demonstrated an ability to charm the hell out of anyone with his bemused role on Parks and Recreation, flips that reputation on its head to deliver a skin-crawling performance as Lainey's married emotional abuser. Adam Brody shows up to throw a perfectly whiny tantrum, and Amanda Peet delivers a firm yet open-hearted performance as Jake's biggest temptation to leave Lainey behind.

As Jake and Lainey, though, Sudeikis and Brie are astonishingly good. Sudeikis draws upon the fratty reputation he cultivated at Saturday Night Live to give Jake a grin that's both warm and a little wicked. Brie, whose wide blue eyes can flicker from flirty to panicked in an instant, keeps Lainey's optimism and anxiety simmering right underneath the surface. When one or the other brims over, Brie is breathtaking. Together, the actors create the most hilarious and heartbreaking performances of their careers.

Romantic comedies are dead. Long live romantic comedies.

The most recent romantic comedies to crack $150 million at the box office were The Proposal in 2009 and the 2008 Sex and the City movie, which used its existing franchise appeal to draw crowds. The top-grossing romantic comedies of all time are still 2002's My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241.4 million), 2000's What Women Want ($182.8 million), 2005's Hitch ($179.4 million), and even 1990's Pretty Woman ($178.4 million).

And no, those numbers aren't adjusted for inflation.

Part of the romantic comedy's slide from grace can be attributed to the overwhelming swell of superheroes and action franchises, which tap into both nostalgia and international markets to become box office juggernauts. In the meantime, though, the rom-com tone has shifted from the pastel hijinks of the '90s and 2000s into something more raw (and, yes, R-rated).

Romantic comedies have always snuck in emotionally resonant scenes between mishaps, but five years out from any rom-com that’s made a significant box office dent, we’re now getting a rush of romantic comedies that cut to the chase — and often to the quick. Trainwreck's main couple got together early on, sidestepping the "will they/won't they" dance in favor of sifting through the difficulties of sharing a life with someone. You're the Worst has found success by throwing its reticent protagonists into traditional rom-com problems before pulling the rug out from under them.

As with Sleeping With Other People, the question these romantic comedies pose is less "Do they love each other?" than "Can they love each other?"

These protagonists are all forced to confront the fact that despite what they have been telling themselves, they just might be capable of loving someone. Fran Hoepfner put it beautifully over at the A.V. Club:

It’s that feeling—that somewhat paranoid self-awareness of giving oneself over to another person—that You’re The Worst nails down so perfectly. It understands that the hallmark of 21st century relationships is not 8 billion connections made but rather fear. It is scary to meet someone. It is scary to like someone. It’s scary to give yourself over to them, bit by bit, leaving yourself exposed to pain and heartbreak. Yet that fear is hilarious.

Sleeping With Other People embraces that giddiness of clicking with someone new and exciting, but also the absolute terror that they just might have no idea what they're doing. There are some relationships that aren't meant to be, but are nonetheless crucial. There are some neuroses that are actually deep, pulsing anxieties that can bring everything crashing down in an instant. When Jake and Lainey fall in love, it's just as devastating as it is exhilarating.

So it's disappointing when Sleeping With Other People embraces the predictable nature of romantic comedies for a more satisfying ending. Its story doesn't need one. What matters is that these two brilliant, flawed people finding each other at this moment in their lives made them each more whole. Whatever happens next is beside the point.