Some people just suck at relationships. In Leslye Headland’s SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE, two serial cheaters take a chance at preserving their friendship by pledging to stay platonic. Their mutual attraction never in question, Lainey and Jake (Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis) may be the cause of their current situation, having lost their virginity together in a one night stand back in college. Now, twelves years later and accidentally reunited at a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, the two of them vow to face the dating world together, head on, but apart.

The rare romantic comedy that is not only funny but also ful of joy, and passion and romance, SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is a film I cannot recommend enough. The characters are well-drawn bold personalities that embrace some of the obvious stereotypes of this kind of film but still constantly rise above them. The dialogue is consistently hilarious and quotable. The plot sets up for the final act with a craft seldom seen in comedies with a finish that is not only satisfying but uplifting. I love this movie.

Jason Sudeikis is already a star, but this film ought to lift him above people like Seth Rogen who always have to keep their tongue in their cheek. Sudeikis is funny and open and honest and someone worth fighting for to get the girl. Essentially a story about two people trying to not fall in love, SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is the best romantic comedy in years.

“There’s this movie that Andrew Bujalski did a long time ago called Mutual Appreciation,” says writer/director Leslye Headland, “that title just kept coming to mind as I was making the film.”

I had a chance to talk with Headland a few weeks ago about the film, which made its premiere at Sundance. SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE came, not surprisingly, from personal experience. “I had a friend, a guy friend who I basically had a relationship like that with,” she says, “it wasn’t really romantic, it wasn’t really sexual… I think we really taught each other how to be emotionally intelligent.” Headland may have a bit of sardonic take on relationships when it comes to films. Her first feature BACHELORETTE looked at female jealousies and her remake of ABOUT LAST NIGHT owed its emotional core to the original David Mamet play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”   With this new film, she found herself in personally uncharted cinematic territory. “I don’t want it to move into that romantic place, because I’m not very well adjusted in that area, I just thought it was something that would make a good movie, honestly,” she says. This is not, as she describes past work, ‘power dynamics,’ this is navigating a relationship of mutual understanding.

The director knew Sudeikis socially, loved his work, and thought he was the right leading man for this type of work. “I wrote it with him in mind and sent to him when I was done,” she says, “and it was sort of off to the races from there.” The film reunites her with BACHELORETTE producer Jessica Elbaum and if a comparison could really be drawn between the two films its that the biggest obstacle to love is self-hatred. “When I made BACHELORETTE,” Headland explains, “the most common asked question was, ‘Which girl are you?’ And I kept saying, ‘Isn’t this obvious, I’m all of them.’ That’s how I feel about this film as well.”

In the film, both Jake and Lainey are, at their core, good people, but they would never describe themselves as such. “I think our biggest hang-up is just a non-acceptance of ourselves,” the writer/director says, “the actual journey of making the movie and the actual beats of the movie, are me falling in love with myself – really starting to accept myself.” At the end of the film Jake’s best friend says to him (without giving away anything) ‘I don’t know what happened with her, but she fixed you, she set you on the right track.’ So many times you hear people say ‘don’t try to change them’ or ‘accept someone for who they are,’ but the reality is that relationships often change you, and good ones change you in good ways, even if they don’t end up being the right relationship.

“I heard this great phrase once that intimacy is ‘into you, see me,’ meaning that the more close you get to someone, the more close you realize who you are.” One of the funniest scenes, known to those of us who have seen it as the ‘Dirty DJ’ scene, is a good example. As Jake shows Lainey how to ‘take care of her own needs,’ it’s really according to Headland “just like a physical manifestation of him teaching her to love herself.” And the film captures the experience Headland had with her own friend who helped her, she says, in “accepting the male parts of myself, the female parts of myself, the asshole parts of myself.” It’s a hilarious comedy full of really riotous dirty parts that is at its core a tender story of self-realization. “I think it’s really fun to make a movie with people that are so talented,” the director says, “about something so, you know, precious and sweet and complicated.”

SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE really does an amazing job walking the line between raunch and tender, in many ways doing both at the same time. “I don’t find it raunchy,” Headland disagrees with me, “and I don’t mean to challenge anyone calling it that, I just don’t find talking about sex raunchy.” She’s right, it shouldn’t be. But there is a whole market for these sort of ‘raunchy comedies’ going back to PORKIES and ending up with THE HANGOVER Series, with Slate calling BRIDESMAIDS ‘the raunchy women’s comedy we’ve been waiting for.’ SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is way more raunchy then that film, though with less (thank God) diarrhea humor and more diarrhea of the mouth. “One of my favorite jokes in the movie is an improv by Jason,” says the director, “the noodle salad joke, you know? To me that’s just so ridiculous, it’s not raunchy to me, I’m just like, ‘That’s just so dumb, I can’t believe he just did that, we have to put it in the movie,’ you know? It’s just coming from a place of truth.”

Right now you are wondering what noodle salad is referring to, right? Good. See the film – BEARS

“I think we still have a big hang up about sex in films,” Headland says, “we’re cool with language, and we’re cool with violence, and we’re cool with adult themes, but like sex I think still makes people a bit uncomfortable.” The director thinks this is true whether people are seeing it on screen or if the characters are just talking about it openly. “I say talking about sex is like working a battery,” she says, “I think it wasn’t really about balancing, as much as it’s just that’s how I talk, if that makes sense.”

Of course, this discussion leads right into the obvious, the double standard we have in our country when it comes to people talking about their own sexuality. SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE lets women be really sexual without judging them any differently from a man. When we re-meet Lainey in the film, it is at an excruciatingly painful scene in which her boyfriend calls her a whore in public. It’s awful. It’s funny, but it’s awful.

“That’s happened to me,” Headland says, “well, not in public but I definitely have had a man I was sleeping with say something like that to me. I couldn’t believe it, I said ‘what?’ I’m sorry, I’m laughing now,’ but of course it was very painful.” The director called upon her friend Adam Brody to deliver this particularly heart-wrenching moment in the film. “I said, ‘I think you are the only person that will get a laugh on that line,’” she recalls, “he was said ‘I don’t think so.’ I said ‘I think we might.’”

What makes the film different is not how it handles Lainey, but how it handles Jake. They both have issues with being sluts, but Jake isn’t given a free pass. They have the same hang up and the film judges them the same, which is refreshing. “A lot of what women face in their sex life or the way that they are perceived by people, the culture, and the signals that they get from very young onward,” Headland says, “it’s just very different from men.” The film seems to point out some of the absurdities in our own judgements. “The deck is stacked against us, as women, sexuality-wise,” she says, “From ages 12 on. Our experience can’t be interchanged with the male experience.”

SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE dances across the gender inequality question with bold and hilarious two-steps, delivering a sharp and witty story of two people doomed to be together, and how they make each other better for it. SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is open nationwide, expanding to Houston and Dallas this Friday, September 25th, and to Austin Oct 2nd.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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