Sorry the writing isn’t great in this one. Hopefully the ideas make up for it. In the future when I have more time I’ll brush this thing up.
My wife asked me to go see a romantic comedy with her, which I thought was weird, because I thought the rom-com died an unceremonious death years ago. We went to see No Hard Feelings, which is not a rom-com. It’s a satire.
No Hard Feelings does many rom-com things. The film employs a gimmick to instigate a romance of sorts between two individuals unlikely to find each other. Bartender and Uber driver Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to date the nineteen year old son of a wealthy Montauk couple (Laura Bentani and Matthew Broderick) in exchange for a Buick Regal when her car gets repossessed and her house may be next. The couple wants their son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), to go off to Princeton with a newfound confidence and without his virginity. The catch, of course, is that Percy must remain unaware that his parents have coordinated the affair.
Naturally, this plot evokes the feeling of a rom-com, especially ones where the female plays a whacky dominant role paired up with a square (The Proposal, Along Came Polly, Pretty Woman, among many others). Rom-coms tend to be extremely formulaic and No Hard Feelings hits all the right beats. Montages exactly where you would expect them, the nadir that intervenes just when love seems imminent, and absurd events that result in reconciliation. Despite its fidelity to formula, No Hard Feelings feels different. While a couple rom-coms have inverted the ending (Forces of Nature, 500 Days of Summer), No Hard Feelings may be the only one I’ve seen where the romantic ending doesn’t just seem unlikely, it seems untenable. Everything occurs exactly how you would expect because, given the premise, what else could happen?
Despite the predictability of the plot and its adherence to formula, No Hard Feelings wears its genre like a wolf in sheep’s clothing: its humor is relentless and satirical. This isn’t The Graduate or Manhattan. Our filmmakers have no strange delusions about the viability of Maddie and Percy’s relationship. The film cannot be a rom-com because it contains 0% romance and 100% comedy. If you ever get an inkling that something romantic is going on, look past the wool and take note of the wolf.
Satire doesn’t work when etched in the plot alone (see Tower Heist). Great satire instead uses the plot as a vehicle for satirical jokes. No Hard Feelings does an excellent job of leveraging its lead, Lawrence, to attack wealth disparity, the misplaced priorities of Gen Z, Gen X parenting, and modern social mores. No Hard Feelings channels Millennial frustrations with society, and while the plot plays into the satire, the dialogue and gags unleash the real satirical bite.
The plot attacks wealth disparity more than any other issue so we’ll begin there. The film begins with Maddie’s car being repossessed, a disastrous event for her because she needs it for her second job as an Uber driver. We quickly learn that a tax lien looms over her home and between her two jobs she can barely earn enough to stay afloat. In Montauk, wealthy vacation homes displace permanent residents, and those who stubbornly stay face an economic crisis as the remaining jobs function as service positions for the new residents.
The wealth disparity also displays itself as generational. Maddie and her friends are Millennials displaced by wealthy Boomers and Gen X members with Gen Z children. These Millennials have to either work multiple jobs while living in abject poverty or move. As property values go up, Maddie gets taxed out of the home she inherited. Thus No Hard Feelings highlights a sort of atypical gentrification. Rather than racial displacement, we see class and generational displacement. In one particularly on-the-nose joke, Maddie asks a Native American (Zahn McClarnon) if he knows what it’s like to be kicked out of his home by invaders, to which he simply replies, “Yes.”
A large portion of the jokes focus on Gen Z, a generation of kids who appear to be woefully unequipped to grow up. Our lead male, Percy, has the competence to get into Princeton and play beautiful songs on piano, but refuses to learn to drive despite his parents’ willingness to buy him practically any car he wants. If you know any Gen Zers, this phenomenon is oddly common.
Perhaps that depiction is unfair. After all, Millennials faced the same criticism fifteen years ago and fifteen years before that it was Gen X. But concerns for Gen Z are inverted from those of Gen X, especially. This makes sense considering Gen Z consists of the children of Gen X and we often rebel against our parents in strange ways. The parents of Gen X were concerned about their children being hedonistic slackers who prioritized social events over career advancement (Gen X would have the last laugh, entering the job market at an ideal time and, being a smaller generation, facing less competition from peers).
No Hard Feelings maintains its Millennial perspective throughout, bitterly mocking Percy for his failure to appreciate the riches that have been bestowed upon him. Even when the film asks us to appreciate Percy, it’s under the assumption that he owes his redemption to the Millennial who pulls him, kicking and screaming, out of his shell.
At first the film presents Percy as atypical, attributing his antisocial tendencies to bullying at school. Then Maddie ends up a party full of Percies, which may be the satirical height of the film. Her wit becomes a liability, and soon cell phones record her every word as angry Gen Zers interrogate her about a politically incorrect comeback. As Maddie goes from room to room looking for Percy, she unexpectedly becomes a fish out of water. In one room teens stare at their cell phones. In another they play VR. Bewildered, she asks herself, “Why isn’t anyone having sex?”
I wonder how accurate actual members of Gen Z would interpret these scenes. At work we have a Gen Z intern and even before I saw this movie, I asked him about the car thing because I find it so strange. I have friends with Gen Z children who refuse to learn how to drive despite the offer of a car and gas money. Our intern simply reasoned that they didn’t need cars. They could interact just fine because, unlike us old folks, they had the internet (to which I informed him that we communicated over the internet when I was in high school, too).
No Hard Feelings probably does the best job of identifying the issue with Percy’s constant fear of his parents (not knowing that they have arranged all of this). Percy knows his parents track his phone. When I was in high school, a car provided an escape from the watchful eyes of parents. For Gen Z, they see the internet as more private than meeting up in real life. On the internet they refuse to use Facebook because that’s where their parents are. In video games, Discord servers, social media, and whatever other technologies Gen Z has become absorbed into, they have their refuges. As a Millennial, it’s hard not to see this as pathetic and sad, which is largely the view presented in No Hard Feelings. I would ask the intern what he thinks about the movie, but according to him, his generation doesn’t really watch movies. After all, who has the patience to sit through a two hour narrative when they could be spending five hours watching someone else play a video game?
No Hard Feelings directs most its ire at Gen Z, but it clearly blames the Gen X parents for creating this contemptible generation. Percy’s parents, who only play a minor role in the film, have their scenes stuffed with dialogue that clearly holds them liable for the situation. The weird part is their general awareness of what they have done while being completely unaware about how to resolve it. Hiring Maddie is a sort of hail Mary.
In many ways, Percy’s parents have paved a road to hell with good intentions. They do not understand how, after doing everything “right,” after protecting their son from all the evils in the world and providing him with the education and resources to fly from his nest, that he refuses to spread his wings. Of course, with a nest so luxurious, why would he want to leave?
The attacks on Gen X are not as frequent or as sharp as those on the younger generation, but they do receive the brunt of the blame. They’re blamed simultaneously for the social ineptitude of their children and the economic displacement of Millennials. Yet none of this has been done out of malice. It’s all the result of providing what they think to be best for their children.
No Hard Feelings would be an infinitely weaker film if it didn’t, on occasion, look inward and critique the Millennial point of view it presents. Perhaps no scene does so more hilariously then when Maddie and her friend, Sarah (Natalie Morales), discuss the many non-romantic reasons they have consented to sex in front of Sarah’s horrified husband (Scott MacArthur). Here we see the “Me-Too” generation confront the reality that consent can be messy and that sexual mistakes don’t result in impure violations. It’s a challenging topic to take on, especially as deftly as the scene does, considering that “Me-Too” was spawned by some horrific actions that needed to be exposed and, in many cases, prosecuted. Acknowledging that we took things too far, which led to a sort of puritanical outlook on sex, is difficult. Especially considering that doing so requires a nuanced argument at a time and on a subject where nuance has not been accepted. The power of humor could not shine brighter in these moments.
Maddie also refuses to take the easy way out. Instead of relying on her beauty to score a stable relationship and marry up economically, she instead opts to be promiscuous and burn bridges along the way. In typical Millennial fashion, Maddie so concerns herself with the present that she never has a plan for the future. Her only plan is to do whatever it takes, which is a terrible plan as illustrated by the laughs the audience has at her expense.
At the same time, the Millennial case could not be made more explicit by the plot. Like many Millennials, Maddie wears a yoke of economic hardship inherited as the result of her Boomer parents living their best lives. After a brief affair, her wealthy father leaves her mother with just a house in Montauk, which now hamstrings Maddie. Her friend Sarah, who is pregnant, plans to move to Florida because she cannot afford to raise the child in Montauk even with two salaries. There are times when we pity the Gen Z and Gen X characters. Only with the Millennials does the film evoke empathy.
No Hard Feelings is Hilarious
Without a doubt, No Hard Feelings is hilarious. It’s only real weakness comes from failing to really understand Percy and his generation. It tries in the same way I try to understand Gen Z, but by approaching everything from the Millennial perspective it’s never clear what Percy wants. For example, he volunteers at a dog shelter but he doesn’t appear to have a great affinity for animals and he never talks about it. If he ever mentioned his intended major at Princeton it was meaningless enough that I didn’t catch it. By the end, he discovers something he does want, but other than the collection of stereotypes we Millennials impose on Gen Z, Percy isn’t really a character.
The adherence to the rom-com formula has its advantages and disadvantages. By subverting the genre, it almost adds another layer of humor. At the same time, the climax has a feeling of going through the motions of required convention. By this time, the film has run out of great gags and we’re just waiting for it to end.
Overall, No Hard Feelings is well worth the watch. Great comedy taps into culture and allows us to examine issues that are often difficult to discuss. Sometimes it’s because the issues are sensitive, and other times it’s because they’re so complex. No Hard Feelings takes pleasure in needling our discomforts but it never does so for mere shock value. You leave the theater with something to chew on, ideas that result in 2,000 word blog posts. That’s always a good thing.