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The romantic comedy hasn’t always been such a strangely chaste genre — even mainstream mega-hits like “Pretty Woman” and “Shakespeare in Love” are both rated R and include actual sex scenes — but recent rom-com entries have consistently hedged on the side of purely PG-13 affection. Big box office winners and cultural touchstones like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Love, Simon” kept it relatively clean, and even R-rated offerings like “Trainwreck” and “What Men Want” are mostly occupied with sex as a means to amp up the humor. The romance? Not so much.
But sex is baked into every element of Leslye Headland’s witty “Sleeping with Other People,” the rare rom-com to embrace human sexuality in all of its messy, wonderful, painful glory. The humor is still very much intact, and Headland’s ability to turn even silly sequences — like a gag involving her two leads getting super high on an eye-popping drug cocktail and then wildly dancing at a kids’ birthday party — into actually hot moments hasn’t been matched in the rom-com space in the five years since the film debuted at Sundance.
Headland’s sophomore feature gets right down to it: introducing leads Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) horny co-eds who, through a couple of wacky coincidences and an immediate mutual trust, have sex the very first time they meet. When they’re reunited years later, their high-octane sex drives haven’t abated, though their appetites have taken on a darker cast: they’re sex addicts, and both of them have ruined nearly every relationship they’ve been in because of their shared illness.
Their sex addiction and frequent dalliances with other characters isn’t played for laughs (neither is Jake and Lainey’s own crazy chemistry), instead offering a chance to explore intimacy beyond the usual rom-com expectations. The “happy ending” has already happened — the film’s stars seal it with a kiss within minutes, the usual ending of such stories — and “Sleeping with Other People” is more interested in building emotional bonds through the pair’s decision to not sleep with each other again. Funnily enough, this shaky pact engenders enough sex scenes to earn the film its own R rating and keep the sex appeal sizzling throughout the film.
Building a film around sex addiction is indeed an easy way to add more sex appeal to the entire outing, but Headland toes a tricky line: finding the pain in Jake and Lainey’s issues, but also exploring the inevitably hot situations it puts them in, daring situations most mainstream rom-coms would never touch. That includes sweaty, dangerous sex scenes that aren’t centered wholly on the film’s principal love interests, with Lainey spending entire years engaged in risky behavior with her asshole ex-boyfriend (Adam Scott, somehow both appealing and repugnant) and Jake eventually striking up a steamy relationship with his boss (Amanda Peet).
Plenty of romantic comedies have found pleasure and pain in watching their leads untangle their predictably messy lives as they similarly shore up their burgeoning relationships, but Headland’s film flips the script and places the premium on Jake and Lainey as individual people. Their issues and troubles aren’t just vessels for their romantic journey, but for true self-actualization, finding that nothing is ultimately more appealing than watching a pair of sex-crazed nuts who really love each other stumble their way towards their own kind of happy, hot ending. That such big swings end up being sexy and funny and romantic only highlights the multitude of emotions and tones rom-coms can create, if only their creators are willing to think a bit outside the box.
The great trick of “Sleeping with Other People” is that its clever unraveling of genre tropes only makes the film a lot funnier and more alive than so much of its genre brethren. If nothing else, it’s the only rom-com that makes a cheeky self-pleasuring lesson involving a juice bottle embody all its very best qualities: hilarious, sweet, and hotter than it has any right to be.
“Sleeping with Other People” is currently streaming on Netflix and IFC Films Unlimited.