The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Knocked Up. Superbad. There was no better way to characterize the decade of the 2000s than raunchy sex comedies that pushed the boundaries of humor and appropriateness. Since then, moviegoers have seen a shift in mainstream storytelling trends, from fantasy to dystopian thrillers, from comic book films to remakes. I hope I’m not the only one exhausted by this era of sequels, spinoffs, and reboots, even when it potentially leads to new creativity. In fact, I’d argue that many moviegoers have long been ready for the current renaissance of new, original films poised to become classics like Barbie or Bottoms because of how they harken back to a time of moviegoing that didn’t involve rehashing the same thing over and over again. I’m sure many of us thought that Jennifer Lawrence’s new film No Hard Feelings, which follows her character trying to date a 19-year-old named Percy at the request of his parents to help him break out of his shell, would be one of those films. Instead, it left me feeling extremely uncomfortable, conflicted, and frustrated.
To be frank, the film’s premise, which has been at the center of the controversy since the film’s trailer was released, isn’t new. The older man trying to woo the younger woman. The main character going out with the love interest as the result of a dare or request from an outside party. From 10 Things I Hate About You to She’s All That to Sabrina, you can go back multiple decades and find these narrative tropes but don’t have to go far to find modern examples either.
But here’s the thing: in the era of #MeToo, when conversations around grooming, manipulation, and abuse are much more prevalent, these kinds of films just don’t work anymore. And contrary to what older moviegoers seem to believe online, it’s not that my generation is “sensitive” or “can’t take a joke.” If anything, we’re smarter about protecting ourselves and others, and less afraid to call out problems. Since when did it become controversial to want to protect people from becoming victims of those two, three times their age?
That said, within No Hard Feelings, the raunchiness and risqué-ness was more understated and, at the same more overexaggerated than in the original trailer. It takes up less runtime, about a quarter of the film, but also goes to further lengths than I expected. I was extremely uncomfortable watching Lawrence’s character Maddie, who is 32 years old, trying to seduce a barely-legal adult, using not-so-subtle innuendos and sexual language, coaxing him into her van, plying him with alcohol, skinny dipping with him, and manipulating him into thinking that everything they’re doing is okay. I was disturbed seeing his parents not only being okay with it but enabling this abuse, just because they think he’s too shy and sheltered for his age. They even imply there’s something psychologically wrong with him because he’s nineteen and hasn’t had sex yet, as if that has any bearing on his value as a person or his development. As if his sexual experience is any of their business. I might’ve been okay with it had No Hard Feelings criticized that attitude more and made it more obvious just how ridiculous their request is, but it didn’t. It sounds like the plot of a psychological thriller but it’s played for laughs. Why? Because a woman is doing it?
The creative team behind No Hard Feelings and even Andrew Barth Feldman, the actor who played Percy, have argued that the film is a “satire” (a loosely used term that people seem to think excuses problematic material) of helicopter parents who can’t let their kids grow up. If that’s true, I feel like at the very least, the story still could’ve worked had there been a smaller age gap and if the two leads went into it just being friends. But Lawrence’s character is seen as a “mess” and not as a groomer or manipulator just because she’s a woman. And that undermines the original message at best and at worst, makes it dangerous. Because if we don’t take abuse against men seriously, how can we expect them to take it seriously when women are the victims?
At the same time, however, I felt like No Hard Feelings only promoted the raunchiness in the trailer to get people talking and arguing about the controversy. Because after that uncomfortable first part, it dialed the humor back a lot, making room for more heartwarming moments. I was actually moved by the scene where Maddie and Percy talk about their personal traumas and issues with abandonment, bullying, and isolation. It was nice to see them connect on a personal level outside of Maddie’s arrangement and grow over the course of the story. In that way, when he’s not being manipulated, Percy is truly a highlight of the film for how sweet, talented, and subtly charming he comes across. Unlike the people around him, he’s a good person and knows what it means to have your consent taken away from you.
But then, of course, it would get ruined by the two of them having this tug-of-war exchange about whether or not to have sex, which again, considering their age difference, left a bad taste in my mouth. The film could’ve been just as successful, maybe even more, if it didn’t depend so much on its controversial premise and instead emphasized the parts that made it bearable, even touching. It could’ve been a much better film than it was.
I suppose I have to be thankful that Maddie and Percy don’t end up in a relationship in the end, which honestly is the bare minimum for a film like this. But if this is the beginning of another decade of 2000s films, I hope No Hard Feelings isn’t the example that studios turn to. Today’s audiences, and I count myself among them, are hungry for an era of nostalgia, fun, and classic vibes. But in order for that to work, projects need modern updates, made on the new generation’s own terms.