PARK CITY, UT: During the highly entertaining Q&A that followed last night’s Sundance premiere of Sleeping with Other People, the gleefully crass and very funny writer/director Leslye Headland mentioned that she pitched the movie to star Jason Sudeikis as “When Harry Met Sally for assholes.” It got a big laugh from the crowd, as it should; it’s a funny line. But the more you think about that description, the more it describes why, in spite of many big laughs and an insanely likable cast, Sleeping with Other People doesn’t quite work—because “When Harry Met Sally for assholes” is actually a terrible idea for a movie. Assholes don’t like movies like When Harry Met Sally, and for good reason; they’re sweet and gushy and neat and inclined towards happy endings. Assholes like movies like Headland’s debut, Bachelorette, which was a mean, nasty little dirty bomb in wedding comedy drag. And therein lies the disappointment in this follow-up: somewhere along the line, somebody sanded down Headland’s rough edges.
And that’s a shame, because there are long stretches—particularly in its first hour—when this thing really sings. It opens in 2002, when Jake (Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) meet for the first time in a college dorm, talk a while, realize they’re both virgins, and decide to solve the problem. But that’s as far as it goes, until they meet again in the present, bouncing out of bad relationships ruined by their own sexual hang-ups. So they decide not to sleep together again, so that they can have a healthy relationship that isn’t sexual. But, y’know, can men and women be friends, and will they maybe fall in love, and so on and so on.
Headland started out as a playwright, and you can tell. Her characters talk fast and think fast, and it’s fun to listen to them spar; their snappy dialogue is filled with natural interactions and casual crudeness. Sudeikis is especially suited to this stuff; from his first big speech, talking her out of losing it to the aggressively mediocre guy down the dorm hall, it’s clear that this is a guy who’s very good and talking his way out of (and into) trouble.
Brie is very funny (she’s got a birthday party dance scene that’s a show-stopper), but she also plays the tender reality of the character, which is a smart choice. Headland wisely frames many of their scenes together in two-shots, so we can observe both the speaker and the listener, and they’re often equally compelling. By the end of the picture, their comfort and intimacy is palpable, and they’re both so relentlessly likable that it’s almost okay that it’s heading towards such a maddeningly predictable conclusion. Almost.
But too often, it feels like Headland is pushing up against the formula, and it just won’t budge. By the time it passes its sensible (realistic) ending for an extended epilogue that all but drowns its actors in sap, you’ll find yourself longing for the coke-snorting hellraisers of Bachelorette to crash through the door and make things interesting. The director of that movie, and the woman who wrecked shop at the post-movie Q&A with her jokes about the here’s-how-you-masturbate scene (“You’re welcome, America!”) and Apatow slams (“I’d always wanted to write like a Jack Lemmon character, not some like schlubby guy who can’t stop smoking pot, and if he could just stop smoking pot, he could fuck some cool, hot chick”), is difficult indeed to reconcile with the creator of a movie that plays it this safe.
Sleeping With Other People plays this week at the Sundance Film Festival.