The road to romantic comedy is not exactly paved with mystery. There may be 90 minutes, give or take, of kooky cul de sacs and will-they-or-won’t-they detours, but the GPS is set for only one final destination: Happily Ever After.
Sleeping With Other People’s writer-director Leslye Headland knows she’s in well-marked territory: Her protagonists Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) are witty, wide-screen pretty, and just quirky enough that they could plausibly still be single. And their first encounter in a college-dorm hallway—when Lainey tries to kick down the door of a guy who’s been ignoring her calls, Jake sweeps her into his room and then (drumroll, snare) his arms on a starry rooftop—is exactly the kind of meet-cute that a thousand twinkly-eyed wedding toasts are made of. (Never mind that Brie, 32, and Sudeikis, 39, probably haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since the last Bush administration; just squint and let it ride).
Sleeping’s tweak is that after losing their virginity to each other that night, Lainey and Jake don’t see each other again for more than a decade—when they both show up at the same 12-step meeting for sex addiction. Lainey isn’t addicted to sex as much as some impaired idea of intimacy; she’s got a boyfriend but can’t stop sleeping with Matthew (a deliberately charmless Adam Scott), that same jerk who wouldn’t come to the door back in college. The guy Jake once dismissed as “the Pontiac Aztec of people” is now an OB-GYN with a fancy Manhattan practice and a fussy little mustache. Matthew won’t commit, but his attention is a drug; when Lainey’s iPhone pings with a new text from him her whole body slumps in relief, like a junkie who just found a dime bag in her purse. Jake is a different kind of mess, the lovable-cad type who uses sex and charm to keep intimacy away; he’d rather sleep with a girl’s sister or best friend than have to tell her he just doesn’t want to see her anymore. And so these two perfectly imperfect people decide to do what Harrys and Sallys have been spectacularly failing at since time began: Prove that men and women can be just friends.
Headland, whose last film was the 2012 indie Bachelorette, a sort of prickly, blackhearted little stepsister to Bridesmaids starring Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan, has made something much sunnier and more mainstream here. She can’t avoid the genre tropes—the saucy, truth-telling best friends (Jason Mantzoukas and Natasha Lyonne); the great-but-not-good-enough secondary love interest (Amanda Peet), the emotional and geographic obstacles (Michigan! It’s so far from Manhattan!). And some of the gender dynamics at play here are more than a little questionable. But Sudeikis and Brie, both generally better known for supporting roles and broad comedies (though Brie was also great on Mad Men) step into their lead spots impressively, giving nuanced, vulnerable performances. The script is also generally much sharper and funnier than your average rom-com bear. (One setpiece involving MDMA at a children’s birthday party is especially memorable).
Headland doesn’t know quite how to wrangle her ending, and Lainey and Jake’s chemistry feels more like one of those burning-log videos than a real Antony-and-Cleopatra blaze. Still, it’s a smart, flawed movie about smart, flawed people. And don’t miss the credits, when Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, who play a married-with-kids pair 12 years in, riff back and forth about bad sex and childbirth and all the stuff real couples talk about long after the honeymoon glow is gone. That’s a real Ever After, and it’s a pretty great. B+