A Very Modern Affair: Leslye Headlund’s Sleeping with Other People

The title of writer-director Leslye Headlund’s (Russian Doll, Bachelorette) second feature film, Sleeping with Other People, offers a glimpse into the many ways this smart and emotional comedy plays with the expectations of the rom-com. Yes, it features two attractive, white American stars, Alison Brie (GLOWCommunityMad Men) and Jason Sudeikis (Horrible BossesSaturday Night LiveThe Last Man on Earth), and its resolution is familiar, but the film’s approach finds new perspectives and depths that are often lacking in the well-trodden genre.

The term ‘sleeping with other people’ may evoke a string of steamy nights under the covers – and, sure, the pair reconnect at a sex addiction meeting – but the film is far more interested in the time Lainey and Jake spend with one another not sleeping together, and therefore, crucially, not sleeping with anybody else. In their supposedly platonic friendship, the best friends cherish each other’s companionship above anything else. They have more moments of genuine connection and chemistry than can be found in most early-2000s rom-coms combined.

Brie brings a nuanced understanding to Lainey that speaks frankly to the complicated minefield of modern womanhood. She is naturally confident and comfortable around almost anyone, but underneath she suffers from deeply-felt insecurities. Without condescension or judgement the film suggests Lainey isn’t playing the ‘cool girl’, but she undoubtedly shies away from a girly-girl wardrobe. She likes to dress up in lingerie to make herself feel better, though, and she certainly knows how to flirt.

Yet her insecurities stem from her past romantic failures and long-lasting affair. She may be intelligent and quick witted, but she is living with the consequences of chasing futilely after the same man since college. As Lainey rebuilds her independent assertiveness and autonomy away from the toxic relationship, she opens a future with a million possibilities. Taking Headlund’s script and direction, Brie embodies the effervescent Lainey as the active leader of her own narrative.

Indeed, on the surface, Sudeikis may have less to work with than his counterpart, but his performance keeps Jake from slipping into a creepy perma-bachelor stereotype. He can be insensitive to the women he shows out of his apartment, but he’s loyal to his friends and isn’t afraid to show passion for the things that matter to him or to those he loves. Jake understands and supports Lainey in a way that few rom-com leads ever do. Without dramatising his decisions, *spoiler alert* he not only gives Lainey all the space she needs, but later opts to follow her across the country to pursue her dreams.

Sleeping with Other People takes a similarly positive and progressive approach to its supporting characters. Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage star as Jake’s friends – a happily-married couple who offer the singleton an inspirational example of what a real long-term relationship could look like. They tease and joke with one another, but it’s always done with a loving smile or touch. These are not embittered old-marrieds. The film even shies away from villainising Lainey’s unrequited lover and his now-wife. Adam Scott flexes his contemptuousness but it is restrained, whilst Katherine Waterston plays his sweet, clueless companion who Lainey saves from the harsh truth. The banality of his indifference towards Lainey is particularly poignant for its sad reality.

Ultimately Headlund’s film demonstrates that rom-coms do not need to fall back on the same tired storylines and clichés to succeed. Whether Lainey’s calling Jake out for double-standards or he’s laughing at another guy’s pick-up lines, Sleeping with Other People is simultaneously feminist and romantic: a film about two people who fall in love over time, without sacrificing everything else in their lives. In their friendship-first approach, Lainey and Jake feel like a couple who know and love one another intimately, and their sexual chemistry is ever more satisfying for it.

Sleeping with Other People screens for Valentine’s and Galentine’s at 7pm on Saturday 16th February at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, Hoxton. Click here to buy your tickets, including a beer or glass of wine and popcorn!

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