Writer/director Leslye Headland describes her new movie as ” ‘When Harry Met Sally’ with assholes.”
That’s accurate as far as it goes. But I have to admit, I fell in love with these assholes.
The sorta familiar plot is about a guy and a girl — both of whose love lives are, well, challenged — who make a pact to remain platonic best friends. They will be able to confide to each other the stuff they can tell no one else. But they will not get physical. That would screw up the chemistry.
Jake is a serial womanizer. No sooner does he establish a physical intimacy with a new woman than he starts looking for ways to cheat on her. Thing is, he’s so funny and charming that many of Jake’s wronged ladies let the infidelity slide.
Lainey, on the other hand, has been engaged in a long affair with a OB-GYN who uses her for quick, unsentimental sex before returning to his wife. Normally a pretty tough cookie, she’s hopelessly infatuated with this creep. Though she swears she’ll break it off, she keeps drifting back into his orbit.
Jake and Lainey are seriously flawed. Thank heavens they are portrayed by Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, who somehow manage to make their characters amusing, entertaining, vulnerable and, ultimately, very romantic.
In a prologue we see Jake and Lainey — college students — losing their virginity to one another. It’s a one night stand, no big deal, and both go their separate ways.
Twelve years later they run into each other at a meeting of sex addicts. (How’s that for a deliciously perverse twist on the old rom-com meet-cute scenario?)
He’s curious about his inability to maintain a monogamous relationship — though hardly committed to changing his ways. She’s dealing with her perennial sexual obsession with the good doctor (Adam Scott, who seems to be everywhere these days).
They agree to be each other’s emotional backboard, someone against whom they can bounce their innermost thoughts about sex and love. When they’re together, Jake and Lainey don’t have to pretend to be anything other than what they are.
Lainey tries to achieve “normalcy” by taking up with the charming single dad (Marc Blucas) of one of her students (she’s an elementary school teacher). Jake’s tech firm gets bought out by a bigger outfit and he finds himself involved with his new boss (Amanda Peet).
Okay, okay. We know going in that Jake and Lainey cannot forever resist the carnal tug. These two obviously were made for each other — as a pair they’re able to fully relax and be themselves. The fun is watching their lives unravel until they reach that point when they can no longer deny the obvious.
For some time now I’ve been concerned that Kansas City native Sudeikis, like so many “Saturday Night Live” stars who make the leap to feature films, would be limited to paper-thin comedies. (Creating a funny character for a 5-minute sketch is a totally different proposition from establishing and maintaining a character for 90 or more minutes). But here he’s simply terrific, reveling in Jake’s outward bravado and cocky sense of humor, but always aware of the character’s surprisingly bruised inner life. It’s the first time I’ve looked at Sudeikis and thought: “Movie star.”
Brie provides the perfect counterpoint. With Lainey she nails the curious dilemma of the smart woman in a bad relationship — she knows her obsession with the GYN is pathetic and absurd but cannot break away. She’s half hilarious, half pathetic. Oh, and did I mention she’s sexy as hell?
Headland supercharges the comedy aspect of her yarn by providing both lead characters with amusing best friends. Lainey gets hilariously unsentimental advice from her galpal (Natasha Lyon), while Jake’s business partner (Jason Mantzoukas) and his spouse (Andrea Savage) engage in such riotously self-deprecating repartee that Headland’s next film should be about them.
Headland, whose first feature was the little-seen but critically adored “Bachelorette,” has a remarkable ability to fuse raunch with romanticism. In that regard she’s a lot like Judd Apatow — or Judd Apatow before he decided that a simple comedy should be stretched out over two-plus hours.
Some of the ideas at work in “Sleeping With Other People” are borderline offensive. I’m thinking particularly of a scene in which love machine Jake uses an empty ice tea bottle to demonstrate to Lainey the proper manipulation of female genitalia. The marvel of the film is that even the rudeness is ultimately endearing.
Technically this is a romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy with some serious ideas about love, sex and commitment. Can’t wait to see what Headland (and Sudeikis and Brie) give us next.