There’s not much sex in No Hard Feelings, an R rated comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence as a woman named Maddie who is basically using sex as a form of capital. When replying to an ad to scare quotes date the socially awkward son (Andrew Barth Feldman) of two enormously wealthy new-to-Montaukers in exchange for a used car, she asks for clarification on said scare quotes. “Do you mean date your son or date him?” she asks, bobbing her head, the parents, seated across from her in clothing that, despite its casualness, costs more than the car she’s bargaining for. The Uber driver’s house is on the line, unpaid property taxes through the roof with the new 1 percenters rolling into town, and she’ll do whatever it takes to keep it.
But No Hard Feelings, though billed as a sex comedy and opened to middling reviews that implied disappointment in its lack of raunch, finds its brilliance in the fact that it has more in common with a kind of sparkling, sophisticated comedy of class and complicated human feelings made by Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges than it does with Judd Apatow. Its premise is not so much about sex, but rather how sex is situated socially and culturally: it is capital, it is power, and it is labor. As the adage goes, everything is about sex, and sex is about everything.
Maddie’s arrangement with Percy’s parents basically frames the film as its own kind of con movie, where performed desire and intimacy has a material prize (the car, money ensure the house is protected) — here, Maddie’s the con woman, Percy’s the mark. Percy’s introversion and gracelessness almost makes him “unfuckable”, and he later self-identifies as “a bit of a romantic”. A subversion happens: it’s not that sex is capital, intimacy and vulnerability are.
That Maddie has been characterized as an emotionally unavailable witch who is confronted at every bar with a resentful and sneering townie with a broken heart adds another component to this grifter film: it’s also about a reformed sinner. The more deeply she comes to know Percy, the more open she becomes, the more willing she is to grow, the more she becomes her own mark and falls for her own con.
It’s not so different from Trouble in Paradise, the 1932 romantic comedy by Lubitsch where the thieves’ (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) gambit (to seduce and steal from Kay Francis) goes off the rails, landing in a place where allegiances and plans are muddled by the complexity of desire and performance. Or The Lady Eve, Sturges’ classic 1941 screwball comedy where the roman candle of a movie star and card sharp Barbara Stanwyck accidentally falls for her nerdy oil heir mark, Henry Fonda. These are all effectively films about class, who has it, how you can perform it, and what sex and intimacy’s values are as spaces for security and power.
So crucial to No Hard Feelings’ success is Lawrence’s ability to make crassness classy, a kind of inversion of the glimmering effervescent touch of those studio comedies. Though she’s been lauded for her balls-to-the-wall commitment to its zaniest and most ludicrous moments (perhaps reminiscent of a Hepburn tumbling into the water in Bringing Up Baby), it’s in the delicate sensitivity where its classicism emerges. She gazes at Percy as he plays the piano on their final date and something in her look changes; he plays “Maneater” by Hall and Oates, and she’s confronted with a complicated reflection. It’s not the scene itself that reminds one of something out of Lubitsch, but specifically what Lawrence does with a moment of sentimentality that could easily careen into the maudlin. With an expression that shifts subtly from smirk to slight twinge, a mix of recognition and resentment, Lawrence’s world — who she is and who she wanted to be, in spite of her situation—breaks open. The sequined dress catches the light like a pearl drop tear that falls from Hepburn’s face on New Year’s Eve in George Cukor’s Holiday, hope and tragedy in a single streak.
It’s scary to admit that feelings can derail a job or a joke or a little bit of fun. Someone else’s can be a coveted medal to wrap around the neck and snarkily bite into. But your own? Perilous. Who better understood the precarious nature of sex and comedy than the filmmakers of classic screwballs, for whom power could only do so much before real, unruly desire and want barreled through the original plan’s door? Nothing goes as planned for the characters of Lubitsch’s films, or Hawks’, or Cukor’s, or Sturges’, or, well, you get the picture. In their dynamic examinations of class, sometimes love does, if not conquer and transcend, then at least thwart class resentment’s furious path to oblivion. Only to lead to another path of either self-immolation or self-discovery.
Maddie getting closer to her mark opens up for him, too, an understanding of the cloying and claustraphobic nature of his post-COVID class lifestyle. Maddie’s status as someone purefied by the power of a dweeb’s sincerity and emotional intelligence, and thus a con artist who’s conned herself, may belie the romcom subgenre’s ultimately conservative politics. But its quasi-gentrification narrative allows its class politics and sexual politics to merge, letting the movie to reassert the fact that its relationship to class is still within the lineage of the screwball comedies that came before it: in uncertain economic times, a woman should always get hers.