It’s interesting to map out how the contemporary rom-com narrative has evolved. The hackneyed variations of the Cinderella story have all but vanished from the landscape. The incessant search for ‘the one’ or the perfect partner has been replaced by a myriad of characters who are not only incredibly self-aware – in their recognition of how flawed they really are – but are also willing to embrace and take pride in how they come across, flawed or otherwise (see Trainwreck as the most recent example). The modern rom-com is mischievous and playful, encapsulating the dynamic zeitgeist of Gen Y: it is more than willing to experiment and mess around with the audience’s expectations around narrative convention.
In this kind of re-energised rom-com climate comes writer-director Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People. It’s a tragicomic tour-de-force that lays down important markers about the search for intimacy in a gratification obsessed world and how, even though we are talking more than ever openly about the delectable triad of sex, sexuality and sexual experiences, the subject is still riddled with a plethora of negative and self-perpetuating connotations.
Jake (Jason Sudeikis at his quick-witted comedic best) and Lainey (Alison Brie in a fiery avatar) are two messed-up people. Jake is prone to self-sabotaging his relationships before they get serious because he’s terribly scared of losing a person he actually might begin to care about. On the other hand, Lainey just uses sex as a distraction to desperately pursue and seek the approval of an ex-flame from college (a remarkably creepy and devious turn by Adam Scott). These two remarkable individuals form an unlikely friendship and comfort in each other’s flawed personalities. Over the course of their interactions, they explore various complex subjects with brutal honesty and refreshingly original humour. Could these two admittedly self-aware flawed individuals actually fall for each other and make it work?
Self-aware and self-destructive personalities have cropped up to be the staple fare for the modern rom-com. FX Network green-lit You’re the Worst in 2014, a comedy television series about two misanthropic individuals who try to be in a relationship together even though they don’t believe that they’re the type who can be in a successful relationship. The series went on to be one of the breakout successes of 2014 and will have its second season premiere in September this year in the United States.
However, it would be a highly reductive exercise to see Sleeping with Other People with this lens. The film’s incredibly unabashed, original and insightful foray into sex – especially when it comes to openly discussing female masturbation without a crass or crude sensibility – makes for refreshing viewing. It’s no When Harry Met Sally or its (in)famous Meg Ryan fake orgasm scene, though, having a drastically different approach to dramatic beats than Ephron’s film.
The soul of the feature though, is the crackling chemistry between Sudeikis and Brie. They spit-ball and play off each other in the quick-witted banter sequences and then are equally heartwarming when it comes to the more sombre and introspective mood. Brie and Sudeikis are ably supported by Natasha Lyonne and Jason Mantzoukas who play a couple sharing a playful love-hate relationship. Amanda Peet is wasted in a stereotypically limited role but Adam Scott steals the show in a role that can be called nothing short of a casting masterstroke.
Ben Kutchins’ cinematography is taut and the score by Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau accentuates the emotional dramatic points of the film. The editing by Paul Frank is mostly crisp, scenes move at a nice pace, matching the snappy dialogue. The film falters a little near the end, reaching for a false ending that makes everything after it feel like it is dragging.
The end result, though, is an unexpectedly refreshing modern rom-com that deliberately avoids or inverts audience expectations and genre conventions for the most part. Bolstered by the stellar pairing of Sudeikis and Brie, Sleeping with Other People elevates itself from its counterparts and becomes a charming narrative about modern day expectations around intimacy.