Commentary: Jennifer Lawrence’s pro-chastity sex comedy

News & Politics

It is often remarked that the label “slut” has no male equivalent; terms like “player” and “womanizer” are a tad too celebratory. Well, yes. Call it a “double standard” if it makes you feel better, but we as a species tend to worry much more about female promiscuity. For men what counts is discretion and honor.

A word that points out failure in this regard might sting a little. I nominate “cad,” which usefully captures a sniveling unmanliness common to modern courtship.

Justin Timberlake is a cad, as we discover in Britney Spears’ forthcoming memoir. It’s not that he deflowered Spears while telling the public they were “waiting for marriage.” Obviously, that schoolgirl getup was always meant to titillate us with the suspicion that America’s teen queen was “not that innocent.” It’s that Timberlake bragged about it, both to a pair of moronic drive-time DJs and to Barbara Walters. He also pressured Spears into aborting their baby (“To this day, it’s one of the most agonizing things I have ever experienced in my life,” Spears writes), subsequently dumped her via text, then later implied she had cheated on him to burnish his sad boi image when he went solo.

Spears and her team naturally market her book as a triumph (“I’m finally free to tell my story”), but the struggle apparently continues. Her third marriage ended in August after just eight months, the kind of disaster nasty little trolls like Perez Hilton used to milk for clicks during Britney’s heyday in the early 2000s. It’s no longer fashionable to heap such abuse on famous young women, no matter how much they seem to be “asking for it.” What seemed like wild partying at the time in retrospect looks more like a desperate search for love. The sadness lingers.

It’s hard to find sympathy for the hot girl. Not least because hot girls often refuse to admit their hotness; both the men under their spell and their female competition find the whole “I’m such a dork!” routine a bit rich. What’s refreshing about Jennifer Lawrence’s latest movie, the strangely wholesome sex comedy “No Hard Feelings,” is that it doesn’t try to pretend that her character is lacking either in looks or charisma.

Maddie Barker is a Montauk townie scraping by as a waitress and Uber driver for obnoxious rich summer people, but she’s not some diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered. Guys have always fallen at her feet. She skipped her high school prom, but not for lack of a date (“Everybody asked me. Teachers asked me!”) and seems to have left a trail of lovelorn exes all over town. She’s Jennifer Lawrence minus the ambition and the lucky breaks.

Maddie seems happy enough where she is. She lives in her modest childhood home, which she inherited from her mother (her father, a married member of the aforementioned summer people class, wanted nothing to do with either of them), has a couple of close friends, and enjoys a robust, if shallow, romantic life. She is, as we say today, “in control of her sexuality.” So when she risks losing her house over unpaid taxes, she’s not squeamish about cashing in on it.

Thus the premise revealed in the “No Hard Feelings” “red band” trailer, which seemed to threaten a return of the raunchy, hard-R comedies of a few years ago: Anxious, rich helicopter parents secretly pay Maddie to seduce their socially awkward, virginal son in preparation for his freshman year at Princeton.

Virgins in the 1980s comedies I grew up with were obsessed with “losin’ it.” The “American Pie” franchise repackaged the same jokes for horny Millennials. But Maddie’s quarry, Percy (played with sly charm by Andrew Barth Feldman), is a member of the notoriously low-libido Zoomer generation, so the joke here is how hard Maddie has to work to get him to put out.

Nobody has sex in this movie. Lawrence does display full-frontal nudity during a bit of slapstick violence on the beach, but it suggests a subtle dig at the creeps who leaked her nudes from the cloud a while back and is decidedly unerotic (teenage boys: your mileage may vary).

Percy is suitably naïve, vacillating between neurotic caution and a deluded confidence that recalls Jason Schwartzman in “Rushmore,” but he’s also smart and unspoiled. His aging Gen X parents (played to cringey perfection by Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) retain the Boomer fascination with recreational coitus as exhilarating “life experience” (“She really opened me up sexually,” Broderick enthuses about his own pre-college summer fling), an approach that by Maddie’s generation has devolved into bored self-soothing (“It was Christmas, I was lonely,” she shrugs when asked about a particularly pathetic past hookup). Only Percy is inexperienced enough to catch feelings.

Percy’s infatuation with Maddie is earned. In between her clumsy attempts to initiate sex with him, they’ve gotten to know each other. But it also threatens Maddie’s mission. Not only does Percy want to put off their first time, he contemplates forgoing Princeton so they can build a future together. It won’t spoil anything to reveal that Maddie’s growing affection and respect for Percy begins to trouble her formerly dormant conscience or that his discovery of her deception significantly raises the emotional stakes for the third act.

“No Hard Feelings” may be formulaic, but it really nails the formula, filling it out with genuinely funny and well-observed characters and dialogue. And it’s an excellent showcase for Lawrence, who finds ample humor and heart in Maddie’s slow progress away from empty, exhausted hedonism toward something riskier and far more meaningful.

JLaw fans already know she has a knack for broad comedy. What struck me here was her stillness in a scene midway through the film. As they attempt a romantic dinner in a fancy restaurant, Maddie goads Percy into playing something on the house piano, and he surprises her with a rendition of the Hall and Oates classic “Maneater.” It’s a song they heard on an earlier date, prompting Percy to remark that it gave him nightmares as a kid, while inadvertently revealing that even at 18 he still has a child’s literal understanding of the lyrics. The song is about a monster.

While “Maneater” is a good tune, its portrait of a female predator is a little goofy and dated. You’d have to be very young to take it seriously or to believe that sex between two consenting adults could ever be so dangerous. But Percy’s version, like all good covers, helps us hear it fresh.

Maddie sits upright at their table, stock still, almost as if afraid to move. The camera slowly pushes in and lingers on her face, and we watch her watching Percy. Surely now he understands what the song is about, and the irony that he could be describing Maddie isn’t lost on us or her. We see guilt flicker across her face, the dawning realization that maybe her ruse isn’t so harmless after all.

But Percy’s interpretation drains the song of its feverish paranoia and replaces it with something more hopeful and unguarded. He hasn’t yet realized that Maddie is deceiving him, but he seems to sense that she’s been deceiving herself, and as he sings we watch her defensive cynicism about love and sex fall away to reveal the sadness beneath. Percy may be in over his head, but for all his inexperience he does know one thing Maddie doesn’t: She’s worth waiting for.

Watching as Percy awakens his would-be seducer to her deepest longings is far more thrilling and intimate that most of what passes for “love scenes” these days.

Matt Himes is editor of Align.

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