Twenty years ago, adult comedies were more reliable performers at the box office than horror movies—or superhero movies, for that matter. Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, the writer-directors Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers all made hit pictures that didn’t cost very much to make and returned many multiples in profit, followed by cable success, then followed by DVD sales. This pattern of wild and crazy comedy was established in 1978 by National Lampoon’s Animal House, a low-budget movie starring nobody that ended up making the equivalent of (get this) $650 million in 2023 dollars at the box office against a total production cost of $3 million ($13 million today). You could go wrong making a comedy, but if you failed, for the most part, you failed small, and if you hit it, you hit it very, very big.
And then big-screen comedy just seemed to die. Everybody has a favorite theory about why, but all explanations come back to the fact that gender and identity politics have made it all but impossible for anything to get through the development grinder in Hollywood without being chewed up into agreeable and inoffensive pablum or rejected outright because the risk of reputational damage from political incorrectness is just too great. As a result, Sandler has been churning out massive Netflix hits like clockwork, Rogen is trying out character acting in films like The Fablemans and the upcoming Dumb Money, and Carell has taken his talents to multiple streaming series.
Which is why the release of No Hard Feelings is a surprisingly significant cultural moment. It’s the first comedy of its kind in a long time, a deliberately raunchy R-rated story about a young woman in desperate financial trouble who becomes part of a desperate scheme concocted by rich helicopter parents to make a man out of their incredibly awkward on-the-verge-of-freshman-year-at-Princeton son. Farcical hijinks ensue. With a stupendous central performance by Jennifer Lawrence as a reckless party girl/bartender/Uber driver who’s past 30 and fast running out of options, No Hard Feelings is an often hilarious and surprisingly soulful movie. Co-writer and director Gene Stupnitsky works hard to soften the malice and ugliness emanating from the movie’s plot and instead provide a sweet and winsome sheen to the proceedings. His deep good will toward his characters keeps No Hard Feelings from becoming gasp-inducingly outrageous in the manner of There’s Something About Mary. The question is whether that’s a good thing when it comes to the box office, because its mildness means No Hard Feelings doesn’t launch you out of the theater on a jangly high. Nor does it provide a satisfying love-story conclusion. Instead, No Hard Feelings is a coming-of-age story in which two immature people unexpectedly learn how to grow up from each other.
Make no mistake, a lot is riding on No Hard Feelings. If it triumphs, that will be a signal that there is an audience for sex and mistaken-identity farces again, the way there was for Wedding Crashers and The Hangover trilogy in living memory. And not only that there’s an audience, but that people have been craving the opportunity to have a good life Hollywood has denied them since it went into Trumpocalypse Mode in 2016 and decided that nothing in American life was funny any longer, that we were all going to die, and that the only thing in Hollywood anyone could agree on was that it would be very bad if the Infinity Stones ended up in Thanos’s gauntlet.
I don’t know when I’ve rooted for a movie more. I really liked it but even if I hadn’t, I would be as desperate as Jennifer Lawrence’s character is for it to make lots of money. Enough with the bad, weak, flavorless, cowardly, pointless comedies of the past few years—every one of which has only deepened the slough of despond into which comedy-loving audiences have fallen because they’ve been told they’re not supposed to find things funny that don’t comport with the commissariat’s directives. No Hard Feelings walks a tricky tightrope, and it gets across the correctness chasm with great creative success. May it be rewarded for its labors.
Published under: Movie Reviews