At a time when audiences are more friendly to raunch-coms than to rom-coms, writer-director Leslye Headland tries to split the difference in “Sleeping With Other People.” Essentially an updated “When Harry Met Sally … ” with texting (or, as Headland described the characters at the Sundance preem, “with a–holes”), two quippy New Yorkers spend more than 90 minutes trying to answer whether a man and a woman can be friends without romance entering the picture. Adhering pretty strictly to romantic-comedy conventions, the pic feels too broad for the arthouse and too small for the multiplex, leaving it in an uncomfortable commercial gray area.
Headland gets the meet-cute out of the way in the first scene, as Lainey (Alison Brie) makes a spectacle in a college dorm yelling at the top of her lungs and banging on the door of the unseen object of her affection. Jake (Jason Sudeikis) pulls her away to cool off in his room and proceeds to smoothly seduce her with smart-aleck humor and putdowns of the mystery man who stood her up (“he’s the Pontiac Aztec of people”). Naturally, they wind up sleeping together on the roof of the dorm.
Twelve years later, Jake has been dumped by the latest in a string of girlfriends for his chronic infidelity, while Lainey confesses to her b.f. (Adam Brody, stealing his single scene) that she’s been sleeping with someone else. That leads them both to the same sex-addiction meeting, where they walk out and strike up the platonic friendship that eluded them in college. (Lainey simply disappeared after their night together.) Turns out they’re both stuck in time: Lainey still carries a torch for her college crush, Matthew Sobvechik (Adam Scott, deliberately ditching his usual charm), now a married OB-GYN with a creepy moustache who doesn’t mind indulging Lainey’s occasional booty calls, and Jake hasn’t been able to find a woman who satisfies him emotionally since college.
As Jake and Lainey banter endlessly, and sometimes amusingly, it never occurs to them that being in a relationship with each other might actually solve their problems. Their obliviousness feels more like a romantic-comedy convention than anything that arises organically from the characters, try as Headland might to give her leads more layers than the genre norm.
The attempt works better for Lainey, since Brie is an actress capable of shifting on a dime from broad physical comedy (her ecstasy-spiked dance to David Bowie’s “Modern Life” at a kiddie birthday party is a comic high point, choreographed by Mandy Moore) to subtle drama (Lainey’s tortured affair with Matthew could constitute its own, potentially more interesting, film). Sudeikis seems most at ease in wisecracking mode and perhaps consequently, Jake never feels as deeply developed, despite the script’s insistence that multiple characters try to psychoanalyze why he can’t commit to another person.
Among the supporting cast, Jason Mantzoukas is funny in a stock best-friend role; Amanda Peet develops a natural chemistry with Sudeikis in the role of Secondary Love Interest Who Never Has a Chance (somewhat awkwardly upstaging the lesser sparks generated when the leads are together); and Natasha Lyonne is underused as Brie’s own stock best pal. Andrea Savage pairs nicely with Mantzoukas in a mini-portrait of a functional marriage — the duo generate some of the biggest laughs in an improv sequence over the end credits.
Headland demonstrated little interest in playing it safe with her previous film, “Bachelorette,” a sour-and-sweet concoction that at times went overboard in grappling with the dark sides and psychological damage of its main characters. But here she reins in that impulse almost too much, and “Sleeping With Other People” winds up both looking (with its adequate but unremarkable tech package) and often feeling like a run-of-the-mill studio comedy — albeit one with a killer scene in which Jake advises Lainey on the art of vaginal stimulation, using an empty green-tea bottle as a visual aid. A little more where that came from would have kept “Sleeping” from feeling so snoozy.