Credit: Macall Polay/CTMG, Inc.
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

No Hard Feelings — Gene Stupnitsky

June 26, 2023

Historically held in low-regard, the coming-of-age comedy (or, to be less discrete, the teen sex comedy) has long served as a useful snapshot of the culture’s evolving anxieties and shifting mores. From the anti-authority thumb in the eye of National Lampoon’s Animal House to the post-(Bill)Clinton public dissemination of sex and preoccupation with bodily fluids of American Pie, to the post-(Hillary)Clinton panic that maybe young women really can’t have it all of Booksmart, there’s almost always more going on with these films than simply keggers and T&A. If you want to get a sense of what’s roiling the discourse — as it relates to dating, technology and even the intersection of youth and politics — look to the (horny) teenagers. 

Such is the case with Gene Stupnitsky’s (Good Boys) new film No Hard Feelings, which uses its somewhat outlandish premise to explore helicopter parenting and how the tendrils of the internet have shaped a generation of young men who, the film argues, would rather hole up in their bedrooms and engage with digital stimuli than venture out into the world and talk to real live girls. Even in its comedic exaggeration, there’s a thinly-veiled panic to the film that a down-for-whatever Jennifer Lawrence in booty shorts isn’t enough to overcome years of isolation, desensitization, and teenage boys having their cell phone all but glued to their hands. At the same time, the film offers up a fairly damning commentary on how unforgiving and cruelly compressed the timetable is for young women as figures of willful objectification, with last season’s sex-bomb being dismissed as “ma’am” with alarming rapidity. It’s the sort of lowbrow comedy where even when the jokes aren’t necessarily connecting, there’s usually something else interesting going on concurrently.

At 32 years old, and nobody’s idea of a withered old maid, Lawrence plays Maddie, a Montauk local, growing increasingly unnerved by the gentrification of her seaside community. Having inherited her late mother’s house, Maddie was unprepared for the housing market to explode as wealthy out-of-towners converged on the Long Island hamlet, driving up her property taxes to levels she can no longer afford. In danger of losing the house and unable to work her side hustle of being an Uber driver after her car is repossessed, Maddie’s begun to explore increasingly desperate options. That leads her to a provocative Craig’s List posting from wealthy parents Laird and Allison Becker (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti), who are willing to hand over the title to the old Buick parked in their driveway to any young lady who will help drag their bookish son Percy (newcomer Andrew Barth Feldman) out of his shell by surreptitiously dating him before he departs for Princeton in the fall. With all parties agreeing that this isn’t strictly sex work — though the film at least acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with the profession — it’s also understood that the car is as good as Maddie’s once she sleeps with Percy — provided he never learns of the pact — which she is all too willing to accommodate. The problem is no matter how often Maddie shows up around Percy in a short skirt or suggests that they go skinny-dipping after trying to get him drunk, he refuses to take the bait, behaving as the consummate gentleman who’d rather get to know her first. Kids today!

What emerges is an unwitting battle of wills between Maddie’s mercenary concerns (and her transactional views on sex) and Percy’s fundamental decency. For all his time spent watching extreme porn or playing online video games in his private hours, Percy remains blissfully removed from the expected urges of adolescent rebellion, demonstrating no interest in getting his driver’s license, underage drinking, or even talking to girls. In flouting the widely held view of incels as embittered, seething trolls, the character is presented as unfailingly shy but also considerate and empathetic; looking past Maddie’s overt advances to try and learn more about her disappointing childhood and understanding how it’s shaped her present. But also, no case is made that there’s anything typical about Percy’s old-fashioned romanticism — he shows up to a first date at a townie bar in a suit jacket and tie, but also… shorts. It’s summer, after all, and it’s too hot for slacks. The film does explore the idea that what previous generations defined as cutting loose or sowing wild oats can seem downright intimidating and even corrosive to kids that were raised with mom and dad peering over their shoulders, having been conditioned since the cradle to academically overachieve at the expense of nearly everything else.

Lest that all sound too finger-wagging, rest assured that No Hard Feelings remains the sort of ribald comedy where a former police dog is triggered by hearing the word “cocaine” and a naked Feldman clings to the windshield of a speeding vehicle that’s racing to beat a train crossing. Stupnitsky came up writing for The Office and broad comedies like Bad Teacher. And yet, this film is all the more commendable when it doesn’t necessarily go for the easiest joke imaginable. Stupnitsky turns down repeated opportunities to do lazy pratfalls in establishing how a car-less Maddie has to navigate town (and a series of precipitous inclines) on rollerblades, instead emphasizing how ungainly they are on steps or when attempting to steal a car while still wearing them. The film is initially annoyingly coy when it comes to depicting nudity — only to later upend expectations in an altercation that can best be described as the distaff response to the most famous scene in Eastern Promises. But No Hard Feelings is at its sharpest when it foregrounds the generational divide, particularly when Lawrence crashes a house party filled with irritating teenagers who laugh in her face, repeatedly inquire whether she’s a friend of someone’s mom, and ask her to not stand in the background of their livestream videos. A snappy comeback to two belligerent bros, telling them to “go fuck yourselves,” spectacularly blows up in Maddie’s face, when the young men interrogate the inherent homophobia in the comment. Meanwhile, Maddie can’t understand why nobody behind closed doors is having sex and is aghast that there are parents in the house (who, in turn, are horrified that a 30-something woman is harassing the teenagers and getting drunk with them).   

Lawrence, who is a bonafide movie star — an Oscar-winning actress and unofficial member of Taylor Swift’s squad — doesn’t need to be making teen sex comedies, but let it not be said that she’s slumming it here for a paycheck. The actress, who, even as a recent mother in her early thirties retains her prominent apple cheeks and girlish glow, throws herself into the situation with aplomb; falling on the right side of the nebulous line between anything-for-a-laugh adventurousness and flop-sweat desperation. The role requires the actress to give (clothed) lap dances and take a garden hose at full blast to the face, after being maced by a terrified teenager. But what’s actually “brave” here is taking on the chin a procession of cutting remarks made about the character’s age. There’s a sense that Maddie is flailing in her thirties, still living off of tips and having one-night stands with every guy sitting at the end of the bar, while her contemporaries are having children and moving out of state. Being the life of the party, as well as — by all sane standards — still “a babe” doesn’t insulate the character from getting dunked on by snarky teens or wealthy tourists. Even in its rote, “everyone learns a lesson” formula, there are moments of genuine vulnerability here. Not to suggest that this is Stupnitsky’s Birth or anything, but the director does allow the camera to linger on Lawrence’s face as she’s moved to tears, in one scene, by a soulful rendition of Hall & Oates “Maneater,” reminding anyone who might have forgotten that she remains one of the most disarming actresses of her generation. 

And despite all of that, it’s still Feldman who’s the revelation here. Tasked with the seemingly impossible role of playing “a straight guy who repeatedly turns down Jennifer Lawrence for sex,” the young actor must come across as chivalrous and honorable without appearing addled or, worse, exclusively a screenwriter’s creation. What’s impressive is how much of the character’s shyness, and his hesitation to engage, is actually tied up in Percy’s clearly defined moral compass — and a burgeoning sense of self-respect, which is further tested once his parents’ scheme invariably comes to light. By all rights, this film should play as a fantasy with a conceit that’s all but impossible to square, and yet, there’s a sort of old-fashioned integrity to Feldman’s performance. Maybe getting laid isn’t prioritized over genuine emotional connections by this generation of teens, and if that’s the price for enduring interminable TikTok videos and the act of holding up every off-color joke as a microaggression, so be it. We’re a long way from the boys in Porky’s spying on the girls’ showers, and it’s difficult to see that as anything but progress.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 25.

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