“Are we in love with each other? What are we going to do about it?”
Sometimes the universe will provide you with the perfect contrast-and-compare examples to show you how a movie formula is done right & how it’s miserably flubbed. Consider the difference between Ryan Coogler’s inspired Rocky sequel Creed & last year’s other boxing world drama, Southpaw. Both films use the structure & tropes of the tried & true boxing picture to tell their respective stories, but Creed was so much more distinct & powerful in comparison that it’s easy to forget that the punishingly mediocre Southpaw was even released that same year. A more recent & much less macho example of that dichotomy would be the pairing of How to Be Single & Sleeping With Other People. How to Be Single is one of the least enjoyable films I’ve seen so far this year (it’s no Gods of Egypt, but it’s not far off) and yet it shares a lot of DNA with the low-key charmer Sleeping With Other People, a brilliant utilization of the traditional romcom format that feels entirely modern without ever working like an arms-length subversion. Sleeping With Other People is a feat in genuine emotion & sincerity in a genre that can often lack both, but it’s also remarkably similar to a recent film that gets it all so very wrong. There’s a lesson to be learned in the difference between how those two titles play onscreen & it’s almost certainly a question of craft.
A will-they-won’t-they romcom with an unfathomably stacked cast of talented actors (Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, and Natasha Lyonne to name a few), Sleeping With Other People is a story of the star-crossed & emotionally damaged. Two recovering sex/love addicts form a sexless, but deeply romantic bond while carrying on affairs with people they care far less about (hence the title). A lesser film would use this scenario to slyly poke fun at or sarcastically subvert the tropes of the romcom genre it operates in, but the brilliance of Sleeping With Other People is the way it feels sexy, smart, adult and, above all, honest all while operating within its genre boundaries. It commits. The film may admittedly be a little more vulgar than what we’re used to from the genre, though. It’s not likely that you’ll ever hear lines like “In your specific case I think you should fuck that sex addict,” or watch a woman learn how to masturbate as demonstrated on an empty juice bottle in My Big Fat Greek Funeral or Garry Marshall’s Veteran’s Day Eve. However, Sleeping With Other People is still instantly recognizable as a by-the-books romcom that delights in the way it plays by the rules. From its onscreen text message exchanges to its falling-in-love montages to the basic confines of its “We’re not a couple, but we act like one” plot, this is a true blue romcom with little to no pretension of being anything else. It just also happens to be well made, uproariously funny, and brutally truthful, a credit to both its writer/director Leslye Headland (who also helmed the underappreciated dark comedy Bachelorette in 2012) & its two stunningly-talented, sincere leads.
There’s recently been a sort of rejuvenation of the romcom format both on the big screen (Wetlands, Obvious Child) & on television (Love, Master of None) that’s encouraging for a genre that for a while seemed like it was on its last legs. How to Be Single felt like a growing pains process for bringing the low stakes romantic comedy into the modern era, never fully committing to letting go of its old-fashioned values despite what the title suggests. Sleeping With Other People, a film that shares two actors & a sex-addicted chauvinist protagonist with that lesser work, is much more adept at balancing a modern sensibility with that same timeless comedic structure. It’s likely there will be plenty of romcom junkies who enjoy How to Be Single well enough, but Sleeping With Other People has much more universal appeal to it. It’s a great movie first & a romcom second. I’d love to know if anyone else senses even the slightest correlation between the two (there’s always a chance I’m dead wrong about these kinds of arbitrary connections), but for me their differences & similarities are as clear as day. It’s also just as clear to me which one will stand the test of time.