Perhaps more than any other type of movie, a romantic comedy depends on the charisma and chemistry of its lead actors. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie may be a little low on chemistry as a couple: They seem more comfortable when their characters in Sleeping With Other People are spooning than when they’re having sex. But individually they’ve got charisma to burn, and they fit snugly into the well-worn rom-com slots writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) has created for them. As Jake, a laid-back ladies’ man whose game is on the cusp of curdling into cynical shtick, Sudeikis fully commits both to Jake’s romance and to his roguishness. One moment he’s reeling off Headland’s raunchy banter with masterful nonchalance; the next, he’s gazing at Brie’s Lainey, the girl he loves too much to make love to, with awestruck tenderness. Playing a self-sabotaging neurotic, Brie is just as versatile. Toggling between the kind of buttoned-down, “adult” serenity she projected as Mad Men’s Trudy and a wide-eyed, nervous energy that makes her seem almost like one of the preschool kids Lainey teaches, she’s believable as a gorgeous man magnet who is, as Jake puts it, so vulnerable that she “might as well be wearing a sign that says ‘Solve my problems with your penis.’ ” But it takes more than a pair of magnetic actors to keep a rom-com’s engine purring.
Sure, the plot feels familiar (Jake and Lainie meet cute and lose their virginity to each other, then meet cute again after being out of touch for years, try being best friends while dating other people, and eventually realize that isn’t working). But what matters in a movie like this is not so much the what as the who and the how, and, though we know Jake and Lainey are made for each other long before they do—or at least before they’ll admit it—Headland makes it feel entirely possible that they won’t wind up together. The problem is that there’s too little besides the two leads to hold our interest. A lot of the humor in a rom-com usually comes from the minor characters, but all the secondary characters here except Matthew (a wonderfully prissy Adam Scott), the pompous jerk Lainey is unaccountably hung up on, are woefully underwritten, functioning almost entirely as a sounding board for the main characters. Which is a particular shame because so much talent is wasted in those anemic roles, including an endearing Jason Mantzoukas as Jake’s friend and business partner; Amanda Peet as Paula, the gimlet-eyed, perpetually bemused boss Jake reflexively hits on; and a barely-there Natasha Lyonne, the most underutilized of the lot, as Lainey’s best friend. The dialogue is sometimes clunky too. Headland seems to think that throwing in a clinical term for genitals makes a line funny, and after a while all those penises and vaginas start feeling a bit de trop, lumps in the frothy little concoction Headland is trying to whip up.
Left to do the heavy lifting, Sudeikis and Brie maintain our sympathy through sheer force of charisma despite their characters’ sometimes appalling behavior (Headland has described the movie as “When Harry Met Sally for assholes,” and Jake in particular is prone to being a jerk). Every so often, a scene captures some small truth with startling immediacy, like when Lainey and Jake exchange a seemingly endless string of goodbyes until she finally darts across the street to the subway at the end of their first date, in one of those excited/awkward farewells you’ve seen on countless street corners. At times like that, Sleeping With Other People wins us over without breaking a sweat.
Written for Brooklyn Magazine