Modern Love

Sex and Freedom in Sleeping with Other People

Sleeping with Other People (2015) | IFC Films
IFC Films

Sleeping with Other People is the sharpest, funniest, best romantic comedy of the decade. Yes, sweeping and definitive statements like that are tiresome. But when writing about an under-seen sleeper, they become necessary. And besides, it’s giddily, gloriously true. Sleeping with Other People marries the sexual frankness of 21st-century rom-coms to the wry, literate wit of classic Nora Ephron—and the human honesty of great movies in all eras. Writer/director Leslye Headland should have been embraced as one of the finest writers to hit the screen in years; her film is blissfully open-hearted, disarmingly smart, and resoundingly complete.

Much of the greatness of Headland’s film lies in its nimble, witty script, its nonchalant attitude to modern romance, and the sparkling performances of Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as its sex-obsessed protagonists, Jake and Lainey. But the deeper value of this movie is the wisdom it fosters about how we really fall in love, and what the real barriers are that often keep us from that experience. Sleeping with Other People understands that before we can deeply and generously give ourselves to another person, we must untangle our own troubled selves from the traps, hang-ups, fears, and addictions that prescribe what we can and cannot want and feel. Rare is the rom-com that stares this complex, unglamorous reality full in the face. And rarer still is a film that can do that, and then ride its story to a deliriously triumphant climax without once cutting corners on emotional realism. 

Jake and Lainey go on their first date after running into each other at a meeting for sex addicts. This isn’t the first time they’ve met: over a decade earlier, they lost their virginity to one other in college. But they haven’t seen each other since, and a sex addiction therapy group is not an auspicious place to meet an old flame. Jake is now a serial cheater, the kind of effortless charmer who flirts and sleeps with women so consistently that his take-no-prisoners best friend only half-jokingly describes him as “the biggest slut in the world.”

(It’s a virtue of the film that Headland never once implies there is anything harmful, or even merely juvenile, about Jake’s promiscuous behavior in and of itself. It’s only the fact that he philanders compulsively—that it’s a habit he can neither limit nor shake, one he uses to hold at arm’s length any possibility of longer-term fulfillment—that turns his pursuit of sex into something that must eventually trouble him. Sleeping with Other People never slut-shames its characters. Instead, it’s one of the most authentically sex-positive rom-coms we have.)

Lainey, however, is attending a sex addiction meeting for much more troubling reasons. For most of her adult life, she has been returning to the same man, to have the same affair. His name is Matthew Sobvechik (played by Adam Scott, in a role so startlingly far outside his usual handsome-and-stylish lane that some viewers find it alienating). They text each other, sometimes after months or perhaps even years apart, to meet for sex (and little else). They routinely cheat on their partners to see each other. For Lainey, it’s a compulsion. For Sobvechik, it’s the opposite: a habit he is wholly in control of. When first we meet him, early in the movie, those whose instincts are more finely tuned may begin to feel the hairs rising on the backs of their necks. We witness the way he uses Lainey’s desires against her. The way he expertly perpetuates her dependence upon him. And then we realize, subtly and without fanfare, that Headland is giving us a stark, nuanced, and breathtaking portrait of an abuser.

After hashing out some of these complexities over their first date, Jake and Lainey agree that sleeping together would be good for neither of them, and they should instead become friends. They talk, tease each other, and commiserate as both continue to navigate their habits in the best ways they know how. As many reviewers have noted, the scenario bears a distinct resemblance to When Harry Met Sally. “Men and women can’t be friends, that’s like Life 101,” says Lainey’s friend Kara, in an understated but unmistakable shout-out to the mothership of all modern rom-coms.

And that, give or take a lingerie shopping trip and a children’s birthday party, is how the movie goes on. Jake and Lainey eye one another, slowly learning to trust in what they have, but always keeping a certain distance—until they cannot go on like that anymore.

*

Sleeping with Other People is about addictions—though not, as it happens, about sex addiction. No, this is a film about addictions that run much deeper than that. It’s about the habits, avoidances, and denials that pin us into our own personal traps, that keep us pushing against the walls of the same situations, relationship after relationship, year after year. 

It’s no coincidence that Headland has since gone on to create the fiendishly brilliant Groundhog Day re-imagining that is Russian Doll, in which continually reliving your birthday party becomes a way of noticing the spiraling, self-harming patterns of behavior that trap you in the same interactions, day after day, life after life. And just as Phil Connors discovers he can only escape Groundhog Day by consciously making new choices about the kind of man he wants to be, just as Russian Doll‘s Nadia slowly realizes the only way out of her loop is to decisively break out of the traps inside her mind, so too do Jake and Lainey discover they will only escape their cycles of unhappiness when they can begin to learn and change. This too, in its way, is a Groundhog Day rewrite—not one that redeploys the allegory explicitly, but one that lays out for us with perfect insight exactly what that story has always meant.

Jake is addicted to the sugar rush and ego boost of quick hook-ups and casual infidelities. Lainey is addicted to her abuser. Jake’s addiction is the extroverted flipside to his fear of commitment, a trait he shares with a decidedly large chunk of men in his demographic. Lainey’s addiction is personal, bone-crushingly heavy, and big enough to block out the sky. When Lainey shuts herself in a toilet cubicle, her breath heaving in panic, so she can text Sobvechik—and when the sight of his reply on her screen makes her gasp in relief—our stomachs churn at what the film is showing us. Lainey depends on Sobvechik like a junkie, just as Sobvechik treats her like his own cheap recreational drug. (“Are you saying I’m crack cocaine?” Lainey exclaims at Jake when he suggests this. “Don’t sell yourself short,” he replies, “we wouldn’t have The West Wing without you.”)

Lainey’s struggle for liberation is the deepest, most vital story this movie tells. It’s rarely foregrounded, but always present—a current running under the surface. In this respect it is much like Sobvechik himself, who is rarely on-screen yet seems to haunt the movie, exerting his malevolent influence from the very opening shot. (On repeat viewings, his unseen presence in those initial moments is like a bitter tang in the back of your mouth.) Essential to Lainey’s liberation is her slowly developing relationship with Jake. Crucially, however, this is not because he rescues her. It’s because in being with him, she learns how to rescue herself.

Such a distinction is possible because Sleeping with Other People understands how 90% of romantic comedies put the romantic cart before the horse. Rom-coms have always turned on the question of when, and how, our characters will be ready to say the words “I love you.” To really say them, the way we all hope to be able to: with uninhibited certainty, with our entire heart and mind and deepest selves invested. The trouble is, most rom-coms presuppose that we become able to say those words only when the right person arrives, as though the presence of that person somehow unlocks us, allowing us to love as we haven’t previously loved, to feel what we could not feel before. Of course, in reality—as many of us sooner or later learn, if we are lucky—we are unlocked not by the presence of the right person outside of us, but by the changes we make within ourselves. We may circle through much of our 20s and 30s and beyond in long and painful loops, re-living the same relationships, sunk by the same failures. But when we finally find ourselves in a relationship that becomes wonderfully and critically different, it’s because we’ve learned how not to step into those same traps.

Jake and Lainey understand this in the end—and so does Leslye Headland. Love, in her movie, is a complicating, challenging force, pitching our lives violently sideways even as it somehow steadies and heals us. At the film’s tenderest, most intimate moment, Lainey, near-broken, whispers to Jake: “Are we in love with each other?” Quiet, frightened, he nods his assent. She goes on, in a fearful whimper: “What are we gonna do about it?” In the stark, bare simplicity of her question lies an insight that sets this film apart from almost every other romantic comedy that flitted across the screens this decade. “What are we going to do about it.” How many romantic comedies are there in which the fact of love, when confronted, is seen so nakedly for what it very often is: a dangerous, confusing, potently disruptive thing—a thing we must wrestle with, and make impossible decisions about, because it won’t always come easily and simply into our lives. 

*

Sleeping with Other People | IFC Films

And yet Sleeping with Other People is a profoundly joyful film. Sudeikis and Brie, immersed in their roles with the ease and grace of practiced divers in troubled waters, are both staggeringly beautiful performers. On the most obvious level, of course, that just comes with the territory: this is a mainstream movie after all, and a rom-com at that. Neither of them would be here if they didn’t clear a pretty high bar on some or other tangible standard of beauty. But their sparkling attractiveness is more than physical. The chemistry that crackles on the screen is rooted in the deep joy that both actors bring to these characters, a joy that animates every line they speak and every look they give each other. When they dance together at a children’s birthday party, it is one of the most purely euphoric sequences I have seen in any recent movie.

The film inspires the kind of wild, ragged, heart-leaping-up-in-your-chest happiness that so many romantic comedies aim to incite, but which so few deliver with the kind of cascading endorphin rush that pours out of the screen when Sleeping with Other People enters its final 15 minutes. The movie earns that level of intensity because along the way it has never once fudged or denied the fact that devilishly treacherous traps lie in wait for us before we reach these moments, and are always ready to spring. This joy is so pure because it is redeemed from such unflinching honesty about the corruptions that stand in its way.

What Headland’s movie at last affirms is that being able to tell someone you love them–without reservations or inhibitions and with your entire self behind those words—is a declaration of liberty. Sleeping with Other People plays a lot with the notion that Lainey’s damaged vulnerability is part of what makes her so sexy (“I like bad girls with Daddy issues,” comments a friend’s girlfriend when she meets her in a bar). But observe Lainey in the final scene of the film, as she steps out onto the street after a conversation in which she has shown how completely she has reclaimed herself. In her wholeness, in her openness, and in her calm, confident self-command, she is more alive and more sexy than she has ever been before. Sleeping with Other People brings us through its cynicism, its darkness, and its obsessive sexuality, all so it can give us that glowing exuberance we yearn for in our rom-coms—but redeemed from the compromises that most films make in order to create those moments. Love and freedom go hand in hand, and Jake and Lainey can finally walk away from the camera, together.