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Sundance 2015: You should abstain from ‘Sleeping with Other People’

alison

Sleeping with Other People
Written & Directed by Leslye Headland
USA, 2015

With each new inferior romantic-comedy, you come to appreciate the delicate brilliance of When Harry Met Sally just a little bit more.  Sleeping with Other People is a particularly egregious offender because it borrows so heavily from the classic.  Though it tries very hard (too hard) to please, it can’t overcome its faulty premise, miscast leads, and ill-conceived gags.  This is a rom-com with very few laughs and even fewer romantic sparks.

From the first frames, it’s evident that Sleeping with Other People is saddled with a deeply flawed premise.  Lainey (Alison Brie) is an uber-fox who remained sexless because she “wanted to be chosen” by a complete zero named Matthew Sobvechik (Adam Scott).  Lainey’s virginal counterpart is Jake (Jason Sudeikis); an uncouth douchebag who “wanted his first time to be special.”  Okay, that’s utter nonsense, but we’ll roll with it.

Lainey and Jake ‘meet cute’ in a Columbia dormitory, exchange a few hours of wacky banter, party like porn stars, and then descend into a decade of debauchery and loveless yearning.  Yeah, that could happen to these characters… on absolutely no planet capable of sustaining life.

After years of no contact whatsoever, they reunite and decide to conquer their whorishness together.  They develop a deep, soulful friendship while enduring excruciatingly broad comedy scenarios and lifting story beats almost verbatim from When Harry Met Sally.  One character even asserts that “men and women can’t be friends,” just for good measure.  To keep their shifting motivations in line with the story, Lainey and Jake have to do more gymnastics than Gabby Douglas.

Writer-director Leslye Headland is trying very hard to entertain us, but it feels like she’s working straight from the rom-com checklist.  This is already one of the most predictable genres, so the complete lack of surprises or deviation means we get no breaks from the monotony.  Headland had only two alternatives to combat this problem, and neither one of them works.  She could allow her actors, namely Sudeikis, to riff endlessly in the hopes of being funny (hint: he’s not), or she could insert some incongruous comedy skits to juice things up (hint: they don’t).  Sudeikis gets a pass because that’s kind of his shtick; you either like him or you don’t.  There is no excuse for the patently unfunny comedy bits, though.  You actually feel embarrassed for poor Brie, who’s asked to perform a lewd semi-striptease in front of a group of 7 year-olds.

Sadly, this type of lazy, unimaginative humor is pretty indicative of the entire film.  You can count the number of actual jokes, with setups and punchlines, on one hand.  The rest are just sarcastic jabs that have absolutely nothing to do with the characters.  Mostly, Sleeping just sits around and waits for Sudeikis to be funny, until it’s finally time for him to crank out his romance chops.

Unfortunately, Sudeikis’ comedic persona doesn’t suit rom-coms, and he’s too smarmy to be a convincing romantic lead.  Brie fares somewhat better, but her character arc, particularly her lust for Matthew, is just too ludicrous to accept.  Matthew is the type of weasel who would be lucky to avoid prison, much less garner the worship of such a hot young thing.  Thankfully, Sleeping does better with its supporting cast.  Every time Jason Mantzoukas appears as Jake’s best friend, you pray for some screenwriting miracle that will inexplicably bequeath him the lead role.  Amanda Peet is also strong as Jake’s boss; a woman much too intelligent and well-adjusted to be affiliated with this bunch of morons.

All of these faults—the unwieldy premise, one dimensional characters, questionable casting choices—could be overlooked if Sleeping with Other People was actually funny.  Aside from an impromptu masturbation instructional, however, this is a laugh-free affair.  It’s also disappointing to see the filmmakers take such an all-or-nothing approach toward modern sexuality.  At a time when ‘Friends with Benefits’ is all the rage, the issues at play in Sleeping feel decidedly 20th Century.  The laughs are pretty stale, too.


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