There’s this band of scrappy Canadian college rockers called The Mouthbreathers, who have this song Bender, which features the lyrics, “I saw this show on TV, these two girls wanted this guy and he couldn’t choose between them. I wish that that would happen to me. I can’t believe that’s anyone’s problem.” Now, while the specifics might be slightly off, this line comes very close to describing Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People, and this is surely the kind of thought that may cross one’s mind while watching the film’s lead protagonists Jake (a relatively grounded Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (the unimpeachable Alison Brie) struggle to deal with their ‘problematic’ lives. I know it did mine. But hold that thought.
The story goes that Jake and Lainey, one time college acquaintances, cross paths many years later in a sex addicts anonymous meeting. They form a pact in which they endeavour to support each other while attempting to get their lives back on track, promising to lend a helping hand to the other while keeping their literal hands to themselves. And so, as they navigate the sexually-liberated streets of Manhattan, they cycle through dates, partners and ill-advised romantic attachments, all the while looking to the other for advice, guidance and companionship. And chances are, if you’ve read that and think this sounds like the film for you, you’re probably right. On the other hand, if it sounds a little too ‘meet cute millenial’ for your tastes, well, maybe hang your preconceptions by the door, pilgrim, because this one might surprise you.
The real star of the show it has to be said is Headland, who consolidates her gift for orchestrating natural and charming hang out scenes, which are undoubtedly the highlights of the film (just as they were for her previous effort, the unfairly-eclipsed-by-Bridesmaids bridesmaid comedy Bachelorette). Her instincts when it comes to playing out the push and pull of Jake and Lainey’s relationship are impeccable. And the easy chemistry between the two doesn’t hurt either, turning two potentially unpleasant caricatures into endearing, even sympathetic, leads. She also shoots one of the better ‘complicated romantic pairings on a boat under a bridge’ scenes of the last twenty years. Easily top three.
Headland’s also proving herself a compassionate and oddly humane writer/director. There’s precious little of the sanctimonious hand-wringing a similar film from decades past may have indulged in. Sexuality, promiscuity and the complicated webs they weave are all dealt with plainly and honestly with nary a whiff of superiority or condescension (be it from Headland or the supporting characters throughout). The film does not, on the other hand, look too kindly on assholery, and it’s Adam Scott, in the role of Matthew, who is tasked with being the locus in this case for what little ill will there is in the film. Somewhat of a shame really as, while he gives it an admirable nudge, it’s a one note role which seems to be in a slightly different key to the film’s other characters. While we’re talking supporting roles, Jason Mantzoukas as the delightfully unfazed best bud comes close to man-of-the-match. But, then, of course he does.
It is a shame that the hanging out can’t last forever (or the entire 90 minutes for that matter) as whenever the plot machinations kick in the film starts to veer clumsily back in the direction of cliche and predictability, lessons are learned and story arcs neatly resolved. But then, who are we kidding, and what else should we expect? This is a solid romantic comedy very much in the classic mold, which are, a little amazingly, few and far between these days. And while it deals in fairly traditional stereotypes, it toys with them just enough to feel fresh, while still delivering the pay-offs we all instinctively want (or should that be ‘need’) from these outings.
Whatever reservations you might have, it is unexpectedly fun to while away an afternoon with these two imperfect people and their various cohorts. And although you may get the feeling you know where things are headed it’s not the worst thing in the world to pass the time of day with these fine folks as you make your way there.