The romantic comedy is not a genre with gravitas. Rom-coms are portrayed as fluffy confections, time-killers, balm for the wounds of the recently dumped or perpetually single. They’re formulaic.
But there’s wiggle room within the formula. Just as horror films allow a director to confront larger cultural fears, romantic comedies, the really good ones anyway, provide a space to ruminate on our emotional rather than our physical vulnerabilities.
Leslye Headland’s 2015 Sleeping with Other People is an updated version of 1989’s When Harry Met Sally. Like WHMS, SWOP starts with a flashback where we meet our main characters—Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis)—two college-aged virgins. He’s waiting for the right person. She’s scorned by her person. They bone.
Twelve years later, Lainey and Jake meet again at a sex addiction meeting. He only sleeps with women he’s comfortable being rejected by. Lainey is having an affair with the same dude who stood her up in college. Jake and Lainey rekindle their spark, but because of their issues decide to keep things platonic, employing a safe word whenever attraction looms.
Refreshingly, Headland shifts the gender dynamics of Rob Reiner’s earlier work. In WHMS heterosexual relationships are presented as a zero-sum game. (Women want to cuddle all night. Men are calculating how fast they can get home.) When WHMS has the main characters bicker about and demonstrate women’s faked orgasms, SWOP provides step-by-step instructions on how to achieve one.
True, the skill is presented as a gift from a man to a woman. But Lainey takes it, discovers what works for her, and directs a new sex partner to do exactly what she wants. The dynamic has shifted from deceit to communication. It’s less men vs. women and more self vs. insecurity.
Through the development of Jake and Lainey’s relationship, SWOP examines the way that sexual and emotional attachments can be separated and enmeshed. It’s a meditation on the risks and rewards of honesty and the perils involved in a world that, because of technology, makes it possible for us to remain entangled with folks from our past.
Sleeping with Other People is available to stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube. Follow Leslye Headland on Twitter, and enjoy her blog post—#Crucial21DbW: Sleeping Beauty directed by Julia Leigh.