During a very romantic-comedy chat with her smart-mouthed best friend (Natasha Lyonne), Lainey (Alison Brie) dismisses the idea that men and women can’t be friends: “This is the 21st century,” she protests. It is, and yet the quarter-century-old question posed by When Harry Met Sally still hangs over countless rom-coms, including Sleeping With Other People, the rom-com Lainey doesn’t admit she’s starring in. The small miracle of Leslye Headland’s second film as writer-director is not that it sidesteps its influences or shuns its genre. It’s that it somehow makes the lusty undercurrents of its male/female friendship unironically romantic and, at times, unapologetically sexy.
Headland doesn’t get there through coyness, either. Her film is upfront about sex; it begins with Lainey and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) losing their virginities to each other in college (complete with the key 2002 period detail of OK Go’s “Get Over It” blasting over a dorm scene). The pair reunites unexpectedly years later at a 12-step meeting, with each of them nursing a different kind of sexual addiction: the unfaithful Jake to a never-ending parade of women and the obsessed Lainey to one unavailable guy, a gynecologist named Matt (Adam Scott, gamely suppressing his charm to play a cold fish) who is about to marry his longtime non-Lainey girlfriend. Rather than rekindling their initial connection, Lainey and Jake decide to stay friends, counseling each other about their romantic travails and vowing not to have sex with each other.
It sounds like basic romantic-comedy premise-rigging, but apart from slippery and sometimes-confusing time passage, Headland lets the familiar material breathe, and in the process it becomes rawer and scrappier than the typically self-conscious “anti-romantic comedy” that big studios occasionally let through. That’s not to say that Sleeping With Other People lacks for easygoing charm; both Brie and Sudeikis are, in fact, superhumanly appealing, while giving career-best performances almost off-handedly. Brie is especially touching as a woman tethered to a lousy non-relationship, but starting to break away from it and reclaim her life, most notably during a nutty dance sequence at a children’s birthday party. Sudeikis plays a more motormouthed variation on his wise-ass enthusiast persona, and his caddishness never sinks the character because he seems so eager to banter whenever possible. His best friend Xander (Jason Mantzoukas) diagnoses him as having “repartee with everyone” because he “love[s] repartee,” and Headland clearly loves it, too. She supplies Sudeikis, Brie, Mantzoukas, and the rest of the cast with plenty of it, while taking advantage of their comic looseness; her dialogue is distinct without ever programming the characters into robotic patter.
Headland also gives the movie ample physical space. As with her first film Bachelorette, she favors subtle long takes, here showcasing both her actors and their interactions with a variety of New York City streets. With the camera at a slight distance (medium shots far more often than close-ups), the movie catches beautiful little details, like the glint of sunlight coming in from a background window during a brief sex scene, or Brie performing one of the most realistic New York street-crossings ever captured, alive with awkward flirtatiousness. It’s a perfect moment for a movie that, despite plenty of indoor dialogue scenes, feels like it’s taking place in the real, non-postcard New York.
It’s those moments that linger. Sleeping With Other People is very funny (never a sure thing with a rom-com), but more surprising than its laughs are the emotions that sneak up on both the characters and the movie. Again Headland trades in genre familiarity for honesty; when Sudeikis and Brie pine for each other, it’s not kept frustratingly unspoken (though there are some wonderful quiet moments, like an overhead shot of two characters sharing a bed). The film understands that endless withholding of information is not actually a cornerstone of romance, and that life provides plenty of obstacles without requiring ridiculous contrivances. (The script leaves the ridiculousness for its laugh lines, from Malcolm Gladwell jokes to an extended sexual metaphor about record-scratching.) Two movies in, Headland understands the romance and heartbreak of everyday life better than countless Hollywood lifers.