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Coming-Of-Age Comedy ‘No Hard Feelings’ Gets Sex Right

When Hollywood has a moment of honesty, fundamentally conservative values come out of hiding — and ‘No Hard Feelings’ is no exception.

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“No Hard Feelings” is basically an ’80s coming-of-age movie set in the 21st century. But unlike a typical ’80s comedy, where everything is made light of with escapist abandon, this one deals with many of the most pressing problems facing our society as a whole. As is often the case, when Hollywood has a moment of honesty, fundamentally conservative values come out of hiding. 

The premise is that Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to pay the increasingly gentrified property taxes on her house in Montauk. She’s in her early 30s, engages in casual sex, and constantly hurts any man who actually cares about her.

In order to pay her taxes she tries to work as an Uber driver, but her car has been repossessed. So instead, she replies to an ad on Craigslist posted by some rich helicopter parents who are looking for an older woman to date their incredibly withdrawn 19-year-old son — and by date, they essentially mean have sex with. In exchange, she gets a car. But, here’s the catch: The whole thing has to be a secret.

Many of the typical genre beats and tropes emerge quickly. Maddie initiates the process with ridiculously over-the-top seduction tactics that do not work. But once they get past that stage, she begins to honestly like Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). What starts as a mercenary task becomes a matter of the heart.

Percy is hopelessly awkward — portrayed as if he’s slightly on the autism spectrum. But they begin to develop genuine intimacy and affection despite the deception. And of course, when Percy inevitably discovers the secret, his heart is broken. It’s not exactly an original plot, except that in the past, the roles would have probably been reversed. 

Lack of originality notwithstanding, this film is interesting because the complexities of contemporary young adult life are portrayed with such subtle despair — to the point where it crosses the line from sex comedy into sex tragedy. Sex is treated with so little mystery or magic throughout the story, making it almost erotically existential.  

Percy is in many ways a stand-in for so many zoomers. The triple threat of the internet, iPhone, and overbearing parents has castrated him. For those of us who can still remember a world without those things, it’s difficult to comprehend just how much they’ve changed the way kids grow up. Percy is capable but hasn’t really been given any reason to create a life outside of his bedroom. Maddie, of course, changes all that. 

She’s completely sexually liberated, which is to say she’s actually imprisoned by the millennial preoccupation with sex positivity — there’s no easier way to degrade eros than by dragging it through the sewer of universal permissiveness. But if nothing in sex matters (except for consent) then, of course, sex does not really matter — it is on the same level as a bowel movement. This is the perspective Maddie brings. After all, she’s willing to exchange sex for a car. 

But surprisingly, Percy doesn’t really place sex on a pedestal, which was Steve Carrell’s problem in the “40-Year-Old Virgin.” Despite sex being central to the plot in many ways, it’s almost a thematic afterthought. There’s nothing erotic in the picture, although Lawrence infamously has a full frontal scene, which is absolutely hilarious — she’s kicking the crap out of some people who have stolen Maddie and Percy’s clothes while they go skinny dipping.

The point of comedy is to tip over our “sacred cows.” And this film is often hilarious — the nude fight scene being a comedic highlight. Lawrence is one of the most multi-talented actresses of her generation.

But the world we now inhabit has a sort of sexual cloud hanging over it. In the ’80s and ’90s, sex comedies made the mistake of presenting sex as the greatest thing ever. As wonderful as sex can be, it certainly isn’t the end-all and be-all of life — and it’s at its best between people who actually love each other and meaningfully share life together (aka, marriage). But pop culture has come full circle now. HBO shows like “Girls” and “Euphoria” demonstrate this with disturbing clarity, to the point where they feel like conservative propaganda — the life of a modern liberated woman is one of complete alienation from community, love, and actual eros. 

The film puts Maddie on a sort of collision course with herself. Percy isn’t interested in just hooking up with her, which is not Maddie’s normal experience. She is used to guys just wanting to jump in bed with her, and if they want more of a real relationship later, she kicks them to the curb.

But Percy is genuinely interested in her. He’s been so isolated all through high school, and developing a real friendship with a member of the opposite sex does start to open him up. His parents’ creepy plan actually works — not because of the plan but because of Percy. Someone gave him a chance, and his humanity took over. The normal state of Western people is increasingly becoming one of alienation, but thankfully all it takes to start overcoming this distance is real connection. 

This glimmer of hope found in genuine friendship means there’s no reason to completely despair about the societal quagmire future generations will have to deal with. But they still face a truly bizarre and disconnected world — that’s where the title of the movie comes from.

Maddie has no “hard” feelings. She treats life as if it’s just a big game that doesn’t matter. But as it turns out, this is really the most difficult way to live. It’s the hard things in life (no pun intended — this is a review about a sex comedy) that make it meaningful. Sharing pain and difficulty is what really brings humans together.

Hollywood pretends to be woke, ironic, and cynical. But the truth is revealed in stories like these. They know that all the liberal pretense — all the sex positivity — is just a front. We all want real connections with people. In the end, we all want hard feelings. 


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