I’m way behind on my watch list, and we’ve got two female-driven R-rated sex comedies in multiplexes right now. You know what that means. Buckle up, everyone, it’s time for a double feature!
No Hard Feelings comes to us from director/co-writer Gene Stupinitsky (Ukraine represent!), still best known for his extensive work on USA’s “The Office” before writing and directing… gulp Good Boys. But of course the big name here is producer Jennifer Lawrence, who stars in a film made and marketed as a raunchy sex comedy. As a reminder, she won a freaking Oscar for Best Leading Actress. I know the 2017 nude leaks did a number on her mental/emotional state, she’s been busy with a new kid (and doing everything she can to make sure nobody knows anything about her child, God knows how much money and effort that’s taken), the pandemic wasn’t great for anyone, and none of her subsequent collaborations with David O. Russell really panned out like anyone expected. (Oh, and Russell’s career crashed and burned with Amsterdam.) Even so, I was still frankly shocked to see her slumming it this hard. And even more shocked to hear that her movie is apparently good.
As for Joy Ride, this one was the directorial debut of Adele Lim, after her respectable work writing on Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon. Lim also co-wrote the script alongside Cherry “Cheva” Chevapravatdumrong (I swear, I triple-checked that for typos) and Teresa Hsiao, both of whom make their feature debuts after extensive work writing TV for Seth McFarlane. I should add that Hsiao has also done some writing for Awkwafina, because this script definitely sounds like Awkwafina was supposed to pull some Eddie Murphy shit to play all four of the main characters at once. It’s frankly astounding she had nothing to do with this movie, but I guess there’s only so much one adorably crass Asian female comedian can do, and there’s definitely room for some others in that lane.
No Hard Feelings tells the story of Maddie, played by Lawrence. Maddie is a native of Montauk, where local property taxes have skyrocketed due to the seasonal influx of rich white asshole tourists. Thus Maddie is way behind on her taxes, which in turn means her car got repossessed, which in turn means that she can’t make any money as an Uber driver in the peak summer season, which means she’s in danger of losing the house left to her by her late mother, which means she’s fucked.
Enter Laird and Allison Becker, respectively played by Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti. Here we’ve got a textbook example of two wealthy and entitled idiots who’ve lived their entire lives behind gates. As a direct result, their son (Percy, played by Andrew Barth Feldman) is a 19-year-old basket case with no friends, doesn’t drink, doesn’t party… hell, he never even leaves his room. This is of some concern to his parents, who want him to have some degree of social experience before going off to Princeton.
Their brilliant solution: Put an ad on CraigsList, offering a free Buick Regal to a sweet outgoing early-twenties girl who’s willing and able to date Percy and take his virginity. Maddie is in her early thirties, but she needs a car and she’s exceedingly interested in taking advantage of the wealthy assholes who’ve been taking advantage of her town all these years. So Maddie takes the offer and we’re off to the races.
Now let’s turn over to Joy Ride. Audrey and Lolo (respectively played by Ashley Park and Sherry Cola) grew up together as the only two Asian girls in the Seattle suburb of White Hills. I’m reasonably confident that the filmmakers invented that neighborhood just to make it clear that everyone else in this neighborhood is lily-fucking-white. Anyway, Lolo is the daughter of Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants, while Audrey was raised by her white adoptive parents with no knowledge of her birth parentage and she speaks no Mandarin.
Lolo is a starving artist with no brain-to-mouth filter, specializing in sexually-charged sculptures. Audrey went on to be an associate at a respectable law firm, sent to close some unspecified deal in Beijing with a dipshit Chinese businessman (Chao, played by Ronny Chieng). And because Audrey speaks no Chinese, she’s brought on Lolo for her interpreter. Further complicating matters, Lolo’s cousin (Deadeye, played by Sabrina Wu) tags along to meet up with her fellow K-pop fanatics in the area, but this is quickly forgotten and Deadeye stays on as the socially bizarre misfit of the group.
Rounding out the main cast is Kat (Stephanie Hsu), Audrey’s old college roommate who went on to be a massively successful TV actor in China. I might add that Kat is engaged to her costar (Clarence, played by Desmond Chiam), even though he’s a celibate Christian and Kat is lying through her teeth to pretend she’s the same. More importantly, Kat and Lolo are each jealous of the other’s status as “Audrey’s bestie”, so sparks fly.
Put simply, Audrey is staking her entire career on closing this deal with Chao, and her traveling buddies are at constant risk of derailing everything. Things get complicated further when Chao inexplicably refuses to do business with someone who doesn’t know her own cultural history, thus we have our contrived reason for a road trip to go and find Audrey’s birth mother. Hilarity ensues.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Meredith Hagner, who gets a brief yet pivotal appearance as a drug smuggler. She only gets one scene, but damned if she doesn’t steal it.
Both movies have ridiculous premises, but at least Joy Ride is only based on the contrivance of “go find your birth mother or lose your career” as opposed to “seduce an unfuckable 19-year-old boy or lose literally everything.” I might add that Joy Ride has the more straightforward and understandable premise, albeit with more characters cluttering everything up. Cut through the bullshit, and we’re left with the straight woman who has to maintain a professional appearance and close a business deal in spite of all farcical happenings around her. Simple, straightforward, and the motivations involved are much easier to follow.
That said, Joy Ride still has to juggle the relationships between four different characters. No Hard Feelings only has to focus on two.
Granted, the central Maddie/Percy relationship takes a while to get going, and the windup ranges anywhere from cringe to WTF. My personal favorite example would easily be Maddie, full-frontal nude, beating the shit out of three drunken teenagers trying to steal her clothes at the beach. Your reaction to the movie as a whole will depend greatly on your reaction to that particular scene.
For Joy Ride, the make-or-break moment is the turning point going into the third act. In the first hour, the film had built up a good head of steam talking about Chinese stereotypes, living as an immigrant and acclimating to white culture, life as a woman in general, and that’s not even getting started on all the rampant over-the-top jokes about sex and drugs and alcohol. I will freely admit that I laughed harder and more frequently in the first hour of Joy Ride than I did in the entire 100 minutes of No Hard Feelings.
(Side note: Did I mention that this movie was written and directed exclusively by women? Because that makes a huge difference with how hard the film was willing and able to go, especially in comparison to No Hard Feelings.)
But then the film suddenly switched from jokes about Chinese people to jokes about Koreans. We switched from drug busts gone wrong and sexual trysts gone wildly awry, to a K-Pop cover of Cardi B’s “W.A.P.” The film had gone in such a wildly different direction that it lost me completely.
Which brings me to an imperative question: What does each movie have to offer aside from the raunchier jokes? Is there anything more to either movie aside from R-rated sex and drugs?
In the case of No Hard Feelings, it all comes down to the single most important question with regards to any romantic/sexual pairing: What do these two characters need from each other? How do they complement each other, and help each other develop? Turns out, they do in quite a lot of ways.
Both Maddie and Percy are actively held back by their parents. Yes, Percy is directly being handicapped by his snowflake helicopter parents, but Maddie is every bit as captive by her house and the memory of her late mother (to say nothing of her father, and no way in hell am I getting into that particular trauma here). Moreover, while Percy is holding himself back by staying confined to a room he should’ve outgrown by now, Maddie is busting her ass trying to afford a house where she lives by herself in a podunk town that no longer has any use for her.
Then we have the romantic aspect. Percy wants a committed, deeper, long-term relationship, to the point where he can’t indulge in sharing a single night with someone else. Compare that to Maddie, who’s left behind a long string of broken hearts and one-night stands. Whatever the both of them are doing, it’s not working. So now they have to help each other find a third option.
On a social level, the both of them also have a huge problem with artifice. Percy has all these walls and excuses to keep everybody out, while Maddie has so many superficial charms and seductive tricks to bring everybody in. The contrast does a lot to power the cringe-worthy comedy I was talking about earlier. But when the walls finally come down and the two characters can open up and be honest with each other, that’s when they really start connecting and growing together.
By contrast, Joy Ride is less about romance than it is about the deep platonic friendship between the four main characters. The problem there is that the filmmakers are so much more comfortable with the edgier comedy and outlandish jokes that there’s an audible crunch when they try and shift gears to the more heartfelt and emotional material. It doesn’t help that when the third act comes and the four characters go through their requisite shouting matches and falling-outs, it all feels so formulaic and telegraphed. Even with regard to the immigrant material, Audrey shouts a line that came right out of freaking Green Book.
Another point that makes a huge difference is that the makers of Joy Ride seemed determined to give their characters a happy ending. The entire third act was built around getting the characters to a place where everything was happy and resolved. Compare that to The Hangover — arguably the film that perfected the concept of four friends on a drunken coke-fueled sexually-charged misadventure — which did a lot more to embrace how the main characters were in fact boneheaded idiots who maybe didn’t deserve to have everything wrapped up in a neat little bow. Hell, No Hard Feelings was a lot more open about how the main characters are clueless idiots who don’t really know who or what they are, thus their futures are more ambiguous, which in turn made the third act more engaging.
I talk shit about how Lawrence is too good for this material, but the truth is that she’s a good enough actor to show when Maddie is lying (and make it funny) and when she’s being sincere (and make it poignant). That’s a crucial reason why the film works as well as it does. Kudos are also due to Feldman, who needs Lawrence to carry him through every scene until he makes the switch and becomes a driving force in his own right. The two of them together do a surprisingly good job of selling the whole ridiculous conceit and the strong beating romcom at the heart of it.
As for the four leading ladies of Joy Ride, everything comes down to how much fun they’re visibly having. The jokes all land, the barbs draw blood, and the friendships between the characters are all sold because the actors are all having an infectious amount of fun. I might add that such outrageously over-the-top humor doesn’t really work unless the actors involved are 100 percent committed, and these ladies are utterly fearless from start to finish.
What we really have here is a study in contrasts. No Hard Feelings goes deeper, while Joy Ride goes harder. No Hard Feelings is a genuinely thoughtful and poignant romantic dramedy disguising itself as a coke-fueled sex comedy, while Joy Ride puts so much effort into being a vulgar hardcore comedy that its efforts at deeper themes and heartfelt moments feel almost perfunctory. I might add that because Joy Ride is spread between four main characters while No Hard Feelings only has to focus on two, the latter film can put so much more time and effort into developing those two characters and whatever there is between them. Moreover, because Joy Ride puts so much more effort into mindless excess, the plot is more predictable and formulaic, which makes the film far more predictable — and therefore less funny — when everything comes to a head in the third act.
Put as simply as I can, No Hard Feelings exceeded my expectations while Joy Ride met them perfectly. No Hard Feelings is a crappy story elegantly told, while Joy Ride is a bunch of tasteless jokes fearlessly delivered. Joy Ride is unquestionably the funnier movie and the one that most effectively delivers on the promise of R-rated comedy, but No Hard Feelings does a much better job of balancing effective character drama with ribald humor.
I’m perfectly happy to recommend either one, depending on the mood you’re in.