When the trailer for Gene Stupnitksy’s No Hard Feelings made the rounds online, it felt like a mild event. Not only for a return to big theatrical releases for star Jennifer Lawrence, but also a return of the big-budget, theatrically released sex comedy, a genre that has been mostly relegated to streaming. It was great to see one of the few remaining stars who can draw an audience throw her considerable influence behind a straight-up comedy.
But for No Hard Feelings to salvage comedy it must actually be funny. And overall it is. Lawrence plays Maddie, a 32-year-old Uber driver whose car is repossessed for her failure to pay property tax. She answers a Craigslist ad that offers to trade a Buick as payment for “dating” the owner’s sheltered son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). Maddie takes on the assignment to find Percy is not the horny teen she expected, but a fearful romantic. Notwithstanding a few slumps, the script is nimble, and Lawrence and Feldman navigate their lines skillfully; when Maddie is confronted by Percy’s creepy, overprotective male nanny about what her intentions are with him she spits back, “Same as yours: I want to date him.”
Yet when making a similar gay joke later on, she gets called out for being homophobic. And even though that particular scene is a little on-the-nose, the film plays thoughtfully with how culture has shifted since sex comedies of the 2000s. A scene where Maddie walks seductively towards the shrimpy Percy and asks to touch his wiener (he’s holding a dachshund) feels powerfully nostalgic: the immature double entendres, the obviousness of her short dress and high heels, and the trope of a sexually aggressive woman seducing the nerd. In films of the past, women acted like this in daydreams (the unforgettable poolside scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) or as a prank, but often we were supposed to believe they were so self-possessed and direct (e.g. Shannon Elizabeth’s foreign-exchange student in American Pie). Since No Hard Feelings is about Maddie’s subterfuge, the trope is played explicitly as a performance of male fantasy. Maddie is a millennial; she was raised to think this is what turns men on. And it typically works for her, but the man in question is a Zoomer.
The bulk of No Hard Feelings‘ jokes revolve around such generational divide: Zoomers are too sensitive, too coddled, risk-averse. Millennials are disillusioned, priced out of the housing market, unable to commit, living off a precarious gig economy. It’s inherently funny to see the womanly, 5’9″ Lawrence in the same frame as the skinny, awkward Feldman. Though this pairing is legal (Percy is 19), the film plays with our discomfort towards age-gap relationships and a tendency of online discourse to treat the younger partner as a helpless victim, regardless of age. Maddie is confused by Percy’s resistance to her, his paranoia around physical attacks (he carries mace with him), and his fear of sex––she must not be on Twitter.
Neither is Jennifer Lawrence, who has maintained an old-school star aura partly by being offline. She’s admirably strategic about her public persona, and No Hard Feelings is a truly great career move. The Oscar-winning actress is game to take on the physical humiliations of the genre; she gets maced, punched in the throat, and (as a true testament to her commitment) performs a fight scene fully nude. But the film is also tame. There’s a notable lack of bodily fluids and actual sex (it’s probably not a good sign if your raunchy comedy doesn’t ever make me, a very squeamish person, want to look away). This relative prudishness might come from producers unsure if the audience is ready to dive back into the stomach-churning side of sex comedies. It may also simply be the sensibility of Stupkitsky, whose work––like Bad Teacher, Good Boys, and The Office––veers closer to sweet than gross.
If No Hard Feelings lacks outrageousness and transgression, it is surprisingly nuanced and sensitive: after the raucous house-party scene where Maddie is punched, the film cuts to the pair in a limousine, Maddie holding a can of soda to her bruised neck, Percy’s head on her lap. The only thing more improbable than a 32-year-old woman and a 19-year-old man being lovers is being friends, but it’s so crazy that it just might work.
No Hard Feelings opens in theaters on Friday, June 23.