The cringe comedy genre is not for everyone. Unlike the other beats of comedy, this one is meant to make audiences squirm in their seats while they simultaneously chuckle at the awkwardness unfolding on screen. The latest offering in this genre that has been a mainstay on the Netflix US top ten films chart for five weeks now, No Hard Feelings, is no exception.
The film, directed by Gene Stupnitsky and starring Jennifer Lawrence, revolves around a peculiar arrangement. Wealthy helicopter parents, Allison and Laird (played by Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick) hire 32-year-old Maddie Barker (played by Lawrence) to romantically engage with their socially awkward 19-year-old Percy Becker (Andrew Barth Feldman). Maddie is destitute and desperate enough—because she wants to save her home, you see—so she agrees. Allison and Laird, on the other hand, are objectively setting their son up to be scarred for life under the guise of concern, and that’s messy, controlling, and privileged parenthood for you.
The very premise of the film is problematic. But you are supposed to ignore the fact that they are pulling a While You Were Sleeping and The Proposal here, potentially believing that gender-swapping the characters makes it teeter more towards slapstick instead of predatory territory.
Among the film’s many defenders is Feldman himself, who told The Independent, “The film never condones the things that Jennifer’s character does or that my character’s parents do. This is a movie about flawed people, and it’s a cringe comedy. You’re meant to cringe! You’re meant to sit with those uncomfortable feelings.”
No Hard Feelings has the vibe of an existential comedy more than a breezy cringe or raunchy comedy, but it is both those things at the end of the day.
The film reaches its crescendo during a beach outing, resulting in a nude altercation between a totally naked Jennifer Lawrence and three drunk teenagers attempting to steal Maddie and Percy’s clothes while they are skinny dipping. This is the scene that distils what is curious about the film.
This nude beach fight scene encapsulates the essence of cringe comedy. It is disturbing to see an adult manipulate and try to coerce a teenager. Lawrence is despicable and pitiable at this moment. She plays the twisted predator who actually feels sorry for herself well here. And then the scene suddenly pivots.
When the sudden junk punches land—on Maddie, no less—this scene becomes unexpectedly funny. Still, it continues to be uncomfortable for everything that precedes this scene, as well as what happens during and after. This moment makes you glad you are not watching No Hard Feelings with your family.
Exploring the duality of No Hard Feelings with Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity
An interesting element of this beach fight scene is how Jennifer Lawrence’s body is captured. In contrast to traditional Hollywood depictions of nudity, Maddie’s body is not presented in a sexualised manner. The camera does not linger on her curves, and there is no slow-motion running on the beach shot. This does not feel like the sleazy male gaze. Instead, Lawrence’s body is out there, quite literally, in a state of misery and chaos.
This departure from the typical glamorous portrayal of female nudity underlines the overall awkwardness and absurdity of it all.
Maddie is not condemned as an unmitigated predator in the film because this is a comedy. In a drama, things might have followed a different narrative. However, in this beach scene, Maddie is exposed—physically as well as metaphorically—for what she is: a barefaced (and bodied) abhorrent excuse of an adult.
To its credit, No Hard Feelings calls out Maddie’s desperation to save her home as a mere ruse to cling onto the past and refusal to take accountability. Of course, none of this, not even the ending of the film, which gives everyone involved in Percy’s manipulation a redemption, makes up for how coercive and casually cruel Maddie, Allison, and Laird are towards Percy. But you can unpack all the unsexy about No Hard Feelings in that one nude beach fight scene, which is indeed memorable.
You can watch No Hard Feelings on Netflix and catch the trailer here: