Remember when romantic comedies used to come out in theaters? Like, a lot of theaters? All at once? As recently as 2010, something like Valentine’s Day could make bank by positioning itself as a rom-com Avengers before Avengers even existed, but in the last few years they’ve all but disappeared from the release schedule beyond the occasional dude-centric take that markets itself as a long-overdue corrective to all that girl stuff. Truthfully, much of that girl stuff, at least of recent vintage, has been appalling, but it’s nonetheless strange when big studios shuck off a whole genre. Indies have taken over some of this territory, to the point where last summer’s entirely accessible and mainstream-friendly What If got a specialty-house release, seemingly just because it had English accents and Zoe Kazan (and also: girl stuff!). Similarly (and similarly British), Man Up, which premiered at the just-concluded Tribeca Film Festival, has only its modest scale and just-barely-foreign locale to mark it as anything less than a big-studio-grade romantic comedy. It’s got recognizable faces (Lake Bell, doing the best Fake Brit since Gwyneth Paltrow; and genuine Brit Simon Pegg), a farcical premise (Pegg mistakes Bell for his blind date, and she just goes with it), and hacky music cues (seriously: “Bad to the Bone,” for no discernible reason). It’s also fairly charming, not least in its modest 88-minute running time and taming of its wackier instincts. When Bell first decides to deceive Pegg, she feels her way through the contrivance with a low-key authenticity—she’s real-world funny, not mugging-lunatic funny. As silly as the premise is, the movie makes it reasonably convincing for as long as it needs to—and doesn’t string it out for that long, thankfully.
The movie itself, though, does string along a little towards the end. The first chunk of it is structured to show the couple hitting it off first, and then quickly finding ways and reasons to bicker—a clever reversal of a common formula. But once it moves past those two phases, Bell and Pegg seem too smart and reasonable to necessitate the movie’s final twenty minutes of fake suspense. The movie’s supposed lesson about taking chances and putting yourself out there feels copied from a rom-com instruction manual; like Bell’s faking Brit, I imagine the filmmakers getting comically flustered if you questioned them on the specifics. But before Man Up strains itself for conflict and busts out “Bad to the Bone,” it’s a warm and likable little goof.
Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People is both more and less like familiar genre touchstones. Like When Harry Met Sally and roughly a million others, it centers on a couple who isn’t a couple: Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie play a pair of semi-messes who lost their virginity to each other in college, and have since entered into very different sorts of sex addiction: he goes for quantity, while she’s fixated on a total lack of quality (played, improbably but effectively, by Adam Scott). In an attempt to prepare themselves for better relationships, they hang out together, agreeing not to sleep together, and become best friends. Simple stuff, but in Headland’s hands it’s all a little more raw, tense, and sweaty than its more scrubbed counterparts.
That’s not to say the movie itself isn’t polished; as in the more caustic Bachelorette, Headland has a sure hand behind the camera. She’s not afraid to let chunks of scenes play out in unobtrusive long-ish takes, and as much as she obviously, palpably loves her actors, she doesn’t over-rely on close-ups of them to get the film’s moods across. Instead, she captures little details beautifully, like the way light breaks through an office window during a particularly desperate sex scene, or Brie in the midst of one of the most natural-looking scenes of a person crossing the street to her subway entrance that I’ve ever seen in a New York movie. Headland started as a playwright (Bachelorette was staged before it was filmed), but while her dialogue snaps and jabs as needed (her movie-reference game is particularly on point, deploying them with masterful casualness and age-appropriate accuracy), her characters never sound overly pleased with themselves, even at their most self-referential. When Sudeikis protests that he has repartee with a particular woman, Brie snaps: “You have repartee with everybody! You love repartee!” Headland clearly loves repartee too—and may love observing its use as a defense mechanism even more.
She also adores her actors; Brie and Sudeikis, like Bell, are superhumanly charming in the often-tedious act of trying not to fall in love. Sleeping with Other People has post-Apatow raunchiness (along with a very Apatowian tendency to show its characters having sex while partially clothed), but some of its sex talk has a lovely intimacy, both sexy and weirdly romantic (Man Up, while amusing, takes advantage of the new freedoms largely by saying the word “blowjob” a lot). Also, anyone so inclined who has not fallen in love with Alison Brie will have to report for crush duty after a wonderfully bizarre scene where she and Sudeikis attend a child’s birthday party while rolling on ecstasy. Sleeping with Other People doesn’t labor to undermine, satirize, or over-reference the arc of a rom-com; it just goes through that arc with uncommon intelligence and emotion. It’s gimmick-free, very funny, and satisfying. Naturally, it’ll probably play in all of 300 theaters when it opens this summer.
The distributor Saban Films acquired Man Up for theatrical distribution shortly after its Tribeca premiere. IFC Films previously picked up Sleeping With Other People out of Sundance.