Is Hollywood too coy for sex comedies?

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Jennifer Lawrence’s latest film No Hard Feelings is R-rated and sold itself as raunchy – but is actually “tame and inoffensive”, writes Caryn James. Is it a comment on today’s “Puriteens”?


In a widely reported comment about her punningly-titled No Hard Feelings, Jennifer Lawrence said: “Everybody in some sense will be offended by this film – you’re welcome.” Wishful thinking on her part. Tame and inoffensive, No Hard Feelings is Hollywood’s coyest sex comedy. Lawrence’s character, Maddie (who’s 32), is hired by 19-year-old Percy’s parents to “date” him, as they put it, so he doesn’t head off to college a virginal wallflower. That high concept was so full of edgy comic potential that Sony’s publicity and the media coverage bought into the studio’s talking points about the film being outrageous and subversive.

In fact, it’s retro, following the lead of Pretty Woman, playing into the “Wholesome Escort” meme. But that coyness reveals larger social trends. The modest success of its opening weekend – Variety characterised the $15m US box office as “not bad” – speaks to the audience’s hunger for sex comedies, even this bland one. Yet the film also reveals how cautious Hollywood studios remain about sex, especially at a time when the cultural politics of the US is torn between an ever-more conservative right wing and the progressive left.

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Maddie is set up as the most sympathetic of sell-outs, a financially-strapped Uber driver whose car is repossessed just when she’s trying to save the house her mother left her. In one of the more realistic, funnier scenes, Maddie and her best friend go through worse reasons they’ve had sex, including not wanting to make the commute home at night. To them, sex is no big deal, so why not get a car out of it? Except in this movie, it is such a big deal that Percy resists. As Owen Gleiberman said in his Variety review: “No Hard Feelings is the first Hollywood comedy about a teenager losing his virginity in which the teenager in question has no apparent desire to lose his virginity.”

It might sound as if No Hard Feelings is playing into the “Puriteen” concept: the idea, which many have questioned, that Generation Z doesn’t have much sex. Maddie even asks at a high school party, “Doesn’t anyone [have sex] anymore?” – using a common, but unquotable here, term.

But the generational allusions are no more than throwaway lines. In the film, Percy is actually depicted as out of step with other people his age. He doesn’t drive. He doesn’t drink. He stands out at the party where others are pairing off and heading into bedrooms where, even if Maddie doesn’t see them at it, they probably have sex. He’s not typical, but an anomaly. That’s part of the joke.

The fact that No Hard Feelings is a comedy really matters. Recent articles have cited the lack of sex in movies today, looking back to a freer period and suggesting an appetite for more freewheeling films. Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This has seasons called Erotic 80s and Erotic 90s, and the Criterion Channel has a programming package called Erotic Thrillers. But in thrillers, sex is fraught with danger. A comedy has to accept sex as a part of life for it to be funny. No Hard Feelings only pretends to accept it as the plot heads to a sentimental ending about Maddie and Percy finding themselves.

New film Joy Ride has a very different take on the sex comedy (Credit: Lionsgate)

New film Joy Ride has a very different take on the sex comedy (Credit: Lionsgate)

The upcoming, very funny Joy Ride (opening on 7 July) is everything No Hard Feelings pretends to be. Four Asian-American friends, three female (including Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu) and one non-binary, travel to China in a comedy that is sex positive, full-on raunchy (several basketball players they meet incur sex-related injuries) and outrageous in the style of 2017’s Girls Trip. Joy Ride has its own sentimental ending, but sex isn’t part of that emotional dynamic the way it is in No Hard Feelings.

Girls Trip, which even created an outlandish sex scene between a grapefruit and a banana as demonstrated by Tiffany Haddish, was a commercial hit for Universal in 2017. But it looks like major studios have gotten more cautious since then. In today’s climate of book banning, restricted abortion rights and attempts to ban drag, it’s no wonder that Sony is trying to have it both ways with No Hard Feelings, talking up the raunchiness in a bid to draw viewers even while the movie tones it down. The film’s director, Gene Stupnitsky, was more accurate than Lawrence when he told The Hollywood Reporter, “We took great pains to be careful about the ick factor.”

Joy Ride is getting a wide release by Lionsgate, not a tiny indie but not a megastudio. And Vulture has pointed out that its financing structure makes it less of a commercial risk than many movies, so presumably the filmmakers had more latitude than Hollywood’s big studios would allow today. 

If Joy Ride is a success, it might open the door to more comedies that are actually about sex, not non-sex. And if No Hard Feelings continues to do well, or well enough, it will be because of Lawrence. Her slapstick moments and comic delivery are winning, even though she is portraying that old-fashioned, good-hearted, sex-for-money Hollywood type.

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