No Hard Feelings is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Gather round, children, and listen to Ye Old Critic from Generation X tell you how things were back in the olden days. For those of us who entered puberty in the late '70s and early '80s, it was a halcyon era of sex and profanity in movies. First of all, there were a lot more R-rated mainstream movies released, and theaters were fairly lax—and video stores were entirely lax—about policing our access to them. But before the rollout of the PG-13 rating in 1984—and long before that rating became the financially-lucrative sweet-spot for studios—even PG-rated comedies, dramas, horror movies, and action films were replete with swearing and gratuitous (female) nudity. As a result, the average teen-age American male had seen a thousand boobs before he ever touched one, and was fluent in using fucking as an adjective long before he had any use for it as a verb. (In those days, we felt cheated if a movie didn't swear a lot and manufacture reasons for various actresses to lose their shirts.)
It was a different time. Today, you'll frequently see posts on social media from aging Gen X parents who sit their own kids down to watch some movie they remember as fairly innocuous fare—Caddyshack, Trading Places, Stripes, Weird Science, Die Hard—only to discover they'd quite forgotten the saucy language, or the nude and sex scenes that show up for absolutely no reason. It was an age when an apparently family-friendly film like Ghostbusters would manage to wedge in a scene where Dan Ackroyd dreams he's receiving phantasmic fellatio.
(Hell, back then, even superheroes were all about getting laid. "Fortress of Solitude," my ass.)
It was definitely a less prudish time, those decades before mainstream Hollywood became so sex-phobic. But I don't think anyone worried about it much. Certainly, my own parents never cared if I happened upon a naked breast or a sex scene in a movie: they didn't figure it would warp me too badly, and I don't particularly think it did.
Was it a better time? No, probably not, in most ways. If all the sex and nudity wasn't necessarily bad for us, a lot of the attitudes undoubtedly were: grossly exploitative and misogynistic, exclusively heteronormative and homophobic, frequently racist, and with an unfortunate tendency to play sexual assault for laughs. (I won't link to any of the hundreds of clickbait, low-hanging-fruit listicles decrying how mainstream '80s comedies like Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds were "secretly" problematic, but throw a rock and you'll hit one. Just do me a favor and throw it hard.)
But in other ways it was a more innocent time, even a healthier time. It was more common to treat sex and nudity as parts of normal life, and that's what a comparatively large percentage of movies were about then: normal people, living normal lives. (In our age when multiplexes are dominated by superheroes and super-spies and giant robots and other existing IP, a lot of the box-office hits from the '70s and '80s—if released today—would be relegated to the indy art houses or sent directly to streaming.)
And if mainstream comedies were "dirtier" and more exploitative, many of them were also, paradoxically, less cynical and even more moralistic than those in our modern age. Watch something like Sixteen Candles today, and sure, you'll be shocked by the casual racism and rape, but you're equally likely to be surprised by the emotional authenticity and the incredible earnestness of it all. (That's the reason those movies survive, despite their many problems.) And even something as terrible as Revenge of the Nerds—and it really is awful—ends on a celebratory, treacly, totally cynicism-free note, with everybody hugging it out because they've learned important lessons about acceptance.
So it is interesting to watch an A-list, Gen-Y star like Jennifer Lawrence attempt to reinvent the raunchy mainstream comedy for the 21st century in a film like No Hard Feelings. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky (Good Boys), and produced by Lawrence herself, No Hard Feelings is a deliberate throwback to that earlier era in which comedies were both dirtier and, paradoxically, more innocent and heartfelt. It's not a great movie, but it's a surprisingly decent one. And—like the better (if not quite like the best) of those films—it's a bit of a Trojan horse, smuggling a couple of solid, character-driven coming of age stories in the guise of a risqué sex comedy.
Or—to use a metaphor more appropriate to the genre's tropes—No Hard Feelings is like the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold: it'll flash you some boobs, and you'll have some naughty adventures, but deep down it's almost painfully earnest, and just wants to help you be a better person.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Montauk-local Maddie, a 32-year-old bartender and Uber-driver struggling to hang onto the house she inherited from her late mother. Rising property taxes in the thoroughly gentrified economy already make this challenge difficult, and it becomes almost impossible when the car she uses to make her living is repossessed by her bitter ex-boyfriend Gary (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, of The Bear.)
In dire straits, Maddie answers a strange Craigslist ad placed by a wealthy couple (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti), seeking someone to date their 19-year-old son Percy (impressive newcomer Andrew Barth Feldman). Percy is Princeton-bound in the fall, but his parents are worried he is too isolated, timid, and inexperienced for college life. They want to hire a young woman to "bring him out of his shell" (read: deflower him), and in return they are offering an only slightly used Buick Regal.
This ridiculous premise is pure sex-comedy farce, but it's also slyly subversive in several ways. First, obviously, it flips the parental role entirely: instead of being the traditional blocking figures, they are now the (more than slightly creepy) instigators and co-conspirators in their innocent son's corruption. Secondly, No Hard Feelings manages to work as a gender-swapped version of the "ugly duckling" story: Maddie quickly determines that the socially awkward Percy is "unfuckable," but he really does come out of his shell as the movie progresses. Finally, No Hard Feelings also turns on its head the older-woman/younger-man dynamic of most sex comedies. Teen-age boys are usually the protagonists, desperate for a more experienced woman to relieve them of their virginity. (See Porky's, Class, Risky Business, American Pie, ad infinitum.) But here the sensitive Percy becomes the film's comedic foil, seeming to do everything in his power to keep sexually aggressive hero Maddie out of his pants.
The physical comedy resulting from Maddie's clumsy attempts at seduction is broad, and crude, and (in terms of its success) very hit-or-miss. (The most famous/notorious set-piece will undoubtedly be Maddie, fully nude, fighting off a bunch of bullies on the beach, but it's a scene more remarkable for its chutzpah than its hilarity.) The comedy fares better in the dialogue and smaller moments, as does Lawrence. She has built a career playing sullen and traumatized characters in films like Winter's Bone, The Hunger Games, and the recent Causeway—and was excellent in all of them—but here she gets to demonstrate her strong comedic timing, and channel the goofy, self-deprecating humor that (from her public persona, at least) seems to come very naturally to her.
As Maddie and Percy's courtship awkwardly proceeds—moving from crude seduction to something resembling an actual friendship—their characters begin to deepen unexpectedly, and No Hard Feelings begins to feel more substantially like a coming-of-age story for both participants. Jennifer Lawrence is only four years younger than Anne Bancroft was when Mrs. Robinson seduced 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, but adulthood has changed dramatically in 50 years. Maddie is a woman-child, in her own way every bit as immature and emotionally undeveloped as Percy. They turn out to be good influences on each other, and it's to the credit of the film that a ridiculous premise and a lot of crude slapstick makes us believe their character arcs so convincingly.
Still, No Hard Feelings is straddling a lot of curious lines, and not always successfully. There is a sense of at least two movies fighting each other at times, without completely committing to either, and glimpses of potentially better movies all around. The film could certainly have doubled-down on the uncomfortable creepiness of its premise, becoming a truly daring (and perhaps funnier) sex comedy. Or, alternatively, it could have leaned harder into the working-class pressures of Maddie's character, becoming an insightful satire of gentrification and the real-life pressures that can lead someone like her to embrace gig-economy sex work. Or—as perhaps the best option—it could have trusted its two excellent leads more, and let the comedy and character-driven growth develop more organically, without constantly forcing crude contrivances and slapstick set-pieces on them.
In the end, then, No Hard Feelings is an honorable recreation of the '80s-style sex comedy: crude on the surface, sweetly sentimental at heart, only sporadically funny, and just good enough to make us wish it had been better.