Comedy films often offer a delightful escape for a couple of hours, but like any other form of cinematic art, they can also serve as a potent means of commenting on the broader world that moviegoers inhabit. Consider Charlie Chaplin’s iconic work, “The Great Dictator,” for instance, which brilliantly satirized Adolf Hitler while delivering a powerful plea to fight against fascism, all while keeping audiences in stitches. Similarly, the spoof Western film “Blazing Saddles” effectively critiqued racism while playfully subverting the conventions of the popular genre of its time. Comedies can encompass flatulence and absurd humor, but they can also provide thought-provoking insights into the challenges facing humanity.
The new R-rated comedy, “No Hard Feelings,” starring Jennifer Lawrence, attempts to carry on this tradition by intertwining the story of Maddie Barker (played by Lawrence) with modern economic struggles and class disparities. Of course, this film, which includes jokes about Jennifer Lawrence beating people up while naked, isn’t intended to be a highbrow commentary on class issues in the vein of filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani or Ken Loach. Nevertheless, writer/director Gene Stupnitsky (who co-wrote the script with John Phillips) manages to inject some clever humor into the narrative, highlighting the stark differences between working-class individuals and intrusive wealthy ones. However, “No Hard Feelings” ultimately falls somewhat short in its approach to class commentary.
As “No Hard Feelings” kicks off, we meet Maddie Barker, who is struggling to make ends meet even before her car gets impounded, a significant setback for someone who relies on Uber driving to supplement her income. As Maddie heads to her bartending job, it becomes clear that Montauk, New York, her longtime home, has been overrun by uber-wealthy tourists for the summer, with even wealthier residents taking up residence in lavish mansions. These privileged visitors see Montauk’s beaches as mere backdrops for selfies or postcards. They have the means to sidestep economic hardships and daily challenges that Maddie grapples with.
Initially, the film vividly portrays the animosity towards the wealthy individuals transforming Montauk into a nightmare. This resentment even motivates Maddie Barker to respond to a Craigslist ad from affluent parents seeking someone to “date” their teenage son, offering a brand-new car as compensation – an item Maddie desperately needs. Although Maddie feels uneasy about the arrangement, her friend Gabe Sawyer (Zahn McClarnon) persuades her by remarking, “These people have taken so much from us, why not take something from them?” Maddie’s decision to undertake this unconventional gig to secure financial stability is rooted in a desire to strike back at the bourgeoisie.
The initial encounter with the wealthy parents, Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison Becker (Laura Benanti), underscores the film’s sly contempt for the obliviousness of the wealthy. This is evident in their indifference to Maddie’s struggles as she attempts to ascend their stairs while wearing roller skates. These early sequences establish the Becker parents as an antagonistic presence, callous in their choice of words and their view of working-class individuals like Maddie as mere tools to achieve their goals. Moreover, their son Percy’s (Andrew Barth Feldman) introverted nature seems to be a consequence of wealthy people’s attempt to control every aspect of his life. With these class dynamics firmly established, “No Hard Feelings” appears poised to offer further commentary on wealth inequality and continue skewering the uber-wealthy.
However, as “No Hard Feelings” progresses, the focus on contempt for the rich and class inequality noticeably diminishes. The narrative understandably shifts toward humor centered on the contrasting personalities of Percy and Maddie. If the film had merely shifted its focus from class commentary to odd-couple humor, it wouldn’t pose a significant issue. Unfortunately, “No Hard Feelings” takes some peculiar routes in its treatment of economic matters in the third act.
One pivotal moment in the inevitable “breakup” between Percy and Maddie attempts to draw an equivalence between Maddie’s struggles to move past her absent father and Percy’s privilege of having a wealthy dad who can bail him out of trouble at any time. While the thematic intent behind this moment is clear, as it provides parallel traits for the two leads and delivers a pointed critique to Percy, it also feels like an attempt at “both sides-ism” that dilutes the privilege associated with Percy’s father’s wealth. Dealing with emotional issues stemming from an absent parent is not equivalent to being the child of someone who can effortlessly resolve any predicament.
Even more problematic is how Maddie’s financial woes are abruptly resolved in a montage, despite the film’s earlier emphasis on her difficulties in obtaining cash or making house payments, which added depth to the humor in “No Hard Feelings.” Mainstream Hollywood films often shy away from exploring economic challenges or class-related issues, making the film’s initial portrayal of Maddie’s struggles refreshing. However, the rapid resolution of these challenges within a few weeks diminishes the realistic elements that lent humor in “No Hard Feelings” its bite.
Most disappointingly, the film’s sentimental turn in the third act fails to hold the Becker parents accountable for their behavior. To make this part of the story more palatable for mainstream audiences, Percy admonishes his parents, and we only see them again when he is ready to embark on an independent life. “No Hard Feelings” initially embraces a disdain for the rich that echoes other mainstream films like “Ready or Not” or “Society,” which sets up expectations for this quality to persist throughout the movie. Regrettably, “No Hard Feelings” takes a milder approach with its most prominent wealthy characters and doesn’t fully earn their significant emotional moments.
While comedies can serve as a platform for insightful social commentary, they can also exhibit paradoxical third acts and conclusions. This is particularly true for modern R-rated comedies, which often conclude their raunchy and outrageous tales with a sudden embrace of conventional societal norms. Movies centered on wild partying typically end with a cis-het couple getting married, and films featuring rebellious societal outcasts often conclude with those outsiders assimilating into the system. In this way, these irreverent films can remain within the comfort zones of audiences while offering brief temptations of more subversive material.
“No Hard Feelings” unfortunately falls into this pattern. Initially, it presents a biting critique of how the wealthy and extreme class disparities create a nightmarish existence for working-class individuals. However, it eventually gives way to familiar bursts of sentimentality that largely overlook the very real struggles it portrayed. While this is disappointing, it doesn’t render “No Hard Feelings” a bad or unfunny film, nor does it label the film as a “class traitor.” Instead, it highlights the challenges that modern R-rated comedies, or mainstream cinema in the current media landscape, face in living up to the social commentary standards set by classic comedies like “The Great Dictator” or “Blazing Saddles.”