The subversive rom-com writer/director Leslye Headland thought she had in “Sleeping with Other People” is buried in there somewhere, but it’s been piled on by too many clichés to be found. Headland’s last film was the raunchy, delightfully nasty “Bachelorette”, a film that got by on the strength of its cast of brilliantly funny women. Headland again has put together a talented and very funny group, led by the charming pair of Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, but it only makes you angrier she’s saddled them with an unfunny and surprisingly old-fashioned screenplay that barely measures up to the likes of “No Strings Attached” and “Friends with Benefits”.
If you know the aforementioned rom-coms then you have a pretty good idea of what “Sleeping with Other People” is tackling, namely the idea of men and women as friends without sexual attraction interfering. The commitment-phobes in this case are Lainey (Brie) and Jake (Sudeikis), who met one another in college as she was trying to lose her virginity to a boring guy living in his dorm. Lainey and Jake ended up having a one night stand, and neither really moved on past that encounter. Years later, she’s still obsessed with the guy she didn’t sleep with (now played by Adam Scott), and Jake is a serial womanizer who can’t keep a relationship longer than a few months.
A chance encounter at a meeting for sex addicts (although Lainey isn’t at all a sex addict, which is weird and never explained) brings Jake and Lainey back into one another’s lives. The attraction, the instant connection between them is still there after all these years, but they decide instead to just be friends rather than screw everything up. Of course. Naturally, they become emotionally invested in one another; people who encounter them swear they are a married couple, but neither will admit to being in love with the other.
Cue up the jealousy when Lainey begins dating someone serious, and the…sort of casual acceptance of Jake’s frequent sexual encounters. There’s an undeniably sexist streak running through Headland’s script, in which Lainey is portrayed as a total loser and cold fish who needs Jake’s help just to learn how to masturbate properly. She literally chases around her old crush like a stalker, and then gives up her vow of abstinence to the first guy who says “hello” to her. Meanwhile, Jake is busy trying to woo the pants off his boss (Amanda Peet), and makes the reprehensible decision to insinuate himself into her life, becoming friends with her young son, under questionable circumstances. These are the people we’re supposed to root for becoming a couple?
It’s possible to tell a good story about people of questionable morals; Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” is a fine, progressive example of how to do it. But there has to be a certain level of respect for the characters that Headland does not seem to have. She doesn’t seem to know who she wants Jake or Lainey to be, or how we should feel about them. Should we laugh at them? The biggest laughs come from their long-married best friends, played by Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, who trade hilarious off-the-cuff barbs about the ugly side of being in love. If only we could have had a movie about them, instead, but at least they get the entire end credits to themselves. Brie and Sudeikis have real chemistry but it comes out in the scenes where Headland isn’t desperately tossing them into ridiculous scenarios. Unfortunately, those times are few, and if this is what “Sleeping with Other People” is going to get us, perhaps it’s a good idea to remain celibate.