It is said that writer-director Leslye Headland has a tattoo on her wrist reading, “How would Lubitsch do it?” (The same query used to hang on Billy Wilder’s office wall.) After watching Sleeping with Other People, I’m inclined to believe that — at least cinematically speaking — she has taken that daunting question to heart. Like the work of Ernst Lubitsch, her film boasts a slyly amused, classically formal style with her camera always making the best move (it’s an incredibly fluid movie) or choosing the right composition to make it work. In fact, I watched the film twice just to appreciate the way it was made — and also to see if I could figure out why I didn’t quite love it.
That second look brought me closer to loving it, but it also brought home the suspicion that somewhere, on a perhaps less-exposed part of Ms. Headland’s anatomy, there must be an ode to Nora Ephron, who is more than a few rungs lower on the ladder of film than Herr Lubitsch. It isn’t deadly, but it signals a more traditional (and less interesting) rom-com lurking beneath its sophisticated surface. There is something of a disconnect between a film that had earlier concluded a raunchy sex scene, with a witty inversion of Lubitsch’s trademark use of doors closing to comic effect, and one that rehashes the orgasm bit from When Harry Met Sally in a scene about masturbation. It’s not that the R-rated factor is so different from Lubitsch’s world (though it is), nor is it that the scene isn’t funny. It’s that the sophistication has become rather ordinary. That’s the central issue with Sleeping with Other People — it’s a witty, sophisticated, stylish film wrapped around a largely (but not entirely) basic romantic comedy.
The basic setup is fine. Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) have a more than usually volatile “meet-cute” back in 2002 when she — none-too-soberly — tries to rouse the unresponsive object of her ardor in Jake’s dorm room. (No, it’s not that easy to buy the nearly 40-year-old Sudeikis as a college student.) One thing leads to another, and they end up losing their virginity to each other. Boy-meets-girl stuff. But he loses her immediately, and the film jumps ahead to the present day with pathologically unfaithful Jake being dumped by his current girlfriend, while Lainey kills a relationship by telling her boyfriend that she cheated on him — 16 times. It is this “lifestyle” that gives them a second meet-cute at a sex-addiction meeting. One date, and they decide that the like each other too much to mess it up — as each is wont to do — by becoming romantically involved. How this will work out is obvious, but the trip is uncommonly enjoyable.
As things have worked out, Lainey is still hung up on Matthew Sobvechik (Adam Scott), the guy who ignored her in the film’s opening and who is aptly summed up by Jake as having “all the charm of a broken Etch-a-Sketch.” Sobvechik is now an upscale, unlikable gynecologist who is still ignoring her — except when he texts her to have quick sex. The fact that it’s impossible to imagine why she’s all a-dither over him is actually a point in the film’s favor as concerns a sense of reality with the characters. But the film has so many bright spots — and a few odd ones — that singling things out is hard.
The dialogue manages to be funny and insightful all at once (“No dude thinks like that — except Aaron Sorkin,” and “You actively stalked someone today. Your perception of normal might be a little skewed” ). Sometimes it can be almost heartbreaking, as when Jake responds to the advice that he should let people really know him by saying, “I don’t think I like me enough to introduce him to other people.” There’s a marvelously giddy use of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” (yeah, Leos Carax and Noah Baumbach already used it, but not this way). A lot comes down to the performances. This is the first time I’ve really liked Sudeikis and the first time I actually noticed Brie. Truthfully, the whole cast is good, and it’s nice to see Amanda Peet get a really solid role. So, yes, there’s a certain rom-com basic to it. And, yes, its trajectory is obvious. But the compensations are immense. Rated R for strong sexual content, language including sexual references and some drug use.