Sleeping With Other People
Lately, the romantic-comedy genre has been flailing. As Hollywood had struggled to keep up with the rapidly evolving world of sex and dating — from Tinder hook-ups and Snapchat sexts to online porn — misguided comedies like last year’s Sex Tape have failed to connect with audiences. But at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the best-reviewed comedies have been no-holds-barred sex comedies that push (and cross) boundariesin unprecedented and often uncomfortable ways. From swingers to sex addicts, Sundance’s biggest comic hits have all been kinky.
Writer-director Leslye Headland — who broke out with 2012’s underappreciated Bachelorette — originally pitched Sleeping With Other People as “When Harry Met Sally for assholes.” And it delivers on that promise. In the film, which debuted at Sundance over the weekend, Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis play Lainey and Jake, lovers who once lost their virginity to each other — and reconnect at a sex-addiction meeting. Brie can’t stop fooling around with her married gynecologist (Adam Scott). And Sudeikis can’t stop chasing after every skirt in New York City.
Headland’s script crackles with profane jokes (Jake says sex is like “shooting heroin in a controlled, moist environment”), wild twists, and one hysterical instructional scene about manual stimulation (“I call it the dirty DJ”). The film is raunchy, naughty fun, but it’s also warm, precisely because it doesn’t judge its characters for making the kind of bad decisions that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever screwed up while screwing around.
The D Train
Meanwhile, in Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s The D Train, Jack Black plays Dan, a chubby beta male who reconnects with Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the cool guy from high school, thinking that if he can convince Oliver to return to his school’s reunion, it might change his life. In a way, it’s a Can’t Buy Me Love-style comedy about a doofus chasing his dream date, in hopes of taking him to the high-school dance. Normally, that bromantic tension would just be subtext, but midway through, there’s a shocking sex scene that throws the whole comedy off kilter (spoiler alert!): After a wild, coked-up night in Los Angeles, married Dan and studly Oliver have hot (but very unexpected) sex.
Like Sleeping with Other People, the film works because it doesn’t just play the encounter for uncomfortable laughs. The sex reveals Dan’s neediness and Oliver’s loneliness, while crossing a line that’s been carefully and conservatively observed in decades of comedies. From The Hangover to I Love You, Man, so many films have milked the homoerotic subtext of bromances without ever daring to suggest actual bisexuality; The D Train goes there boldly and effectively.
Also pushing boundaries: Writer-director Patrick Brice’s hysterical The Overnight, in which two Los Angeles couples meet on the playground and decide to have a sleepover that becomes more of a playdate for the adults than the children. Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche play sophisticated, oddball hedonists who host a relatively prudish couple — played by Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling — at their decadent mansion. Again, the comedy pushes past the limits other comedies have observed for years: Will the couples swap? Who will end up in bed with whom?
In some ways, The Overnight plays like a micro-history of the last twenty years of romantic comedies: Giggling at hints of sex; sniggering at the suggestion of swinging, and then, finally, giving into temptation. There’s a wild, penis-swinging dance sequence by the pool, explicit sexual jokes that would make even Apatow blush, and, in the end, a subtle look at the difficulty of balancing desire and middle-aged stability.
Sleeping with Other People, The D Train, and The Overnight have been the festival’s most explicit and daring sex comedies, but they’re hardly alone. Joe Swanberg’s Digging with Fire catches up with a married couple (Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) grappling with temptation during a weekend apart. The dirty gymnast comedy The Bronze features one of the most flexible and ludicrous sex scenes ever committed to film. (Think: pommel horse.) Even the short films were pushing boundaries: The U.S. jury prize winner SMILF — written, directed, and starring the terrific Frankie Shaw — finds a young single mom craving sex, needing affirmation, and struggling with her body image as she texts an ex for a booty call while her son is napping in her studio apartment.
What’s most impressive — and genuinely new — about all of these films is that they’re not just playing sex for shock value. They aren’t shaming characters for admitting desires, mocking their mistakes, punishing them for acting out, or using extreme scenes to reaffirm a repressive status quo. For all the illicit raunchiness of these films, there’s something refreshingly open about them all, which feels somehow honest — not to mention healthy.
Image credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute