‘No Hard Feelings’ and ‘Joy Ride’ Bring Back the Sex Comedy, With a Twist

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‘No Hard Feelings’ and ‘Joy Ride’ Bring Back the Sex Comedy, With a Twist

Critics and audiences have long despaired: Where have all the romantic comedies gone? The freewheeling effervescence of bygone Harrys and Sallys and Bridget Joneses; the bright aspirational gloss of a Nancy Meyers production (her latest was dropped by Netflix in March when its price tag reportedly sailed past the $130 million mark).

Instead, what modern viewers mostly get are pale, labored imitations — the frenetic Jennifer Lopez-Josh Duhamel caper “Shotgun Wedding,” the hollow-core Ana de Armas-Chris Evans vehicle “Ghosted.” In projects like these, romance is an empty gesture; chemistry, a distant dream. (“Your Place or Mine,” a dry kiss of long-distance courtship released earlier this year, literally couldn’t stand to keep Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher in the same frame physically for more than three scenes.)

Moviegoers starved for something unabashedly adult and, the film gods willing, actually fun, will probably have better luck finding it this summer in the revival of another languishing genre: the rom-com’s hornier cousin, the sex comedy. Though what hard-R shenanigans look like in 2023 — post-#MeToo, post-pandemic, mid-online culture wars — may necessarily be a very different thing than in 1993, or even 2013.

In a landscape so dominated by bloated blockbusters and soul-deadening sequels, it’s slightly depressing to acknowledge that fresh perspective can be signaled by something as simple, and as radical, as letting the lens be female. Still, there’s novelty in seeing the Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence sign on to a libidinous goof like “No Hard Feelings,” due June 23. She stars as a financially strapped Uber driver who agrees, for a fee, to seduce the awkward teenage son of a wealthy New York couple. The red-band trailer surpassed 45 million views in its first 24 hours online — a testament, perhaps, to moviegoers’ too-long-untapped appetite for cheerfully slapstick set pieces and “Can I touch your wiener?” jokes.

The similarly debauched “Joy Ride,” a sort of sunny “Hangover” redux starring and created by Asian American women, earned near-universal raves when it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. (It’s scheduled for wide release July 7.) Over 95 flamboyantly unhinged minutes, Ashley Park of “Emily in Paris” and the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Stephanie Hsu lead a loose foursome to China on a journey of friendship and self-discovery, breaking several dozen statutes for class-A drugs and public indecency along the way.

Introduced that same week at SXSW, the scrappy lower-budget “Bottoms” (in theaters Aug. 25) was hailed as a queer Gen-Z twist on the classic high school virginity tale. Directed by Emma Seligman (“Shiva Baby”), the movie features “Shiva” star Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri from “The Bear” as teenage lesbians who start a fight club to woo the cheerleaders of their dreams. Hickeys and hematomas ensue.

The sex they’re all putting onscreen is screwball and messy and sometimes medically unsound. It also unapologetically centers female desire and pleasure of all kinks and stripes — “I’ll have what she’s having” to the nth degree. If these films succeed, they’ll join a short list of equal-opportunity raunch at the multiplex: Women-behaving-badly touchstones like 2011’s scatological lodestar “Bridesmaids,” the 2015 Amy Schumer hit “Trainwreck,” and the raucous 2017 ensemble “Girls Trip,” which turned Tiffany Haddish into a grapefruit-fellating meme overnight. (Think of “Easy A” (2010), starring a scarlet-lettered Emma Stone, as the PG-13 starter kit.) Those all had male and often middle-aged directors, though; far less common still are ones actually overseen by women, like Kay Cannon’s “Blockers” and Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.”

So some of the demographic shifts here seem worth singling out: “Joy Ride” is the directing debut of the Malaysian American screenwriter Adele Lim, who co-wrote “Crazy Rich Asians,” and the screenplay is by “Family Guy” alumnae Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao. Most of the players on both sides of the camera in “Bottoms” — which toggles breezily between references to bell hooks and mid-aughts Avril Lavigne — were born after the Clinton administration.

But audiences, of course, hardly measure their leisure time in diversity bona fides. Battered by Covid, spooked by a teetering economy, and finally cooling, perhaps, on endless Marvel tentpoles, their one directive seems to be: Entertain me. Given the option of heady but esoteric award bait like “Tár” and “Women Talking,” in which, respectively, a classical-music conductor spirals into self-imposed ignominy and Mennonite women debate rape in a barn, they’ve flocked instead to blithely ludicrous undercards like “M3gan” and “Cocaine Bear.” (The latter shares two of its three producers with “Bottoms.”)

Even wiener jokes, though, are freighted with the weight of history. Seth Rogen, whose career took root in the animal house that Judd Apatow built and who is credited as a producer on “Joy Ride,” has acknowledged in numerous interviews that much of his catalog doesn’t hold up to scrutiny today. A cursory rewatch of canon classics like “Porky’s,” “American Pie” and most films in the Apatow extended universe (“Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Superbad”) calls back moments of winky misogyny, casual racism and not-so-latent homophobia that seem like obvious third rails now.

How Hollywood can adapt in an era so strenuously aware of identity and isms — and a generation of young people reportedly having significantly less sex than their predecessors — feels like a continuing social experiment, as murky as the future of movies themselves. The gift of the most outrageous comedies, after all, is that they allow us, for an hour or two in a darkened room, to leave best behavior and safe spaces at the door. At a press preview in April, the co-stars Sydney Sweeney and Glenn Powell proudly sold their forthcoming “Anyone but You,” a modern riff on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” due in December from the “Easy A” director Will Gluck, as a combative romance between “a real nightmare” and an ass, with no small amount of nudity. The internet swooned.

Those who fit a certain archetype, though, like Powell and Sweeney, will naturally be given more latitude than others to nudge the boundaries of mainstream taste. Projects that showcase more traditionally underrepresented groups — or anyone, really, who falls within the confines of not straight, not skinny, not white — are still often made to carry the full weight of representation. See the performative hand-wringing over the box office failure last year of “Bros,” a well-reviewed gay rom-com with an R rating and an out cast, after it was breathlessly touted as the first film of its kind to receive wide theatrical release.

Maybe for all those reasons, there are no teachable moments explicitly embedded in the delirious, rampaging teendom of “Bottoms,” even as certain life lessons sneak in sideways from the margins. Or in “Joy Ride,” which nevertheless features one major character in search of her Chinese birth parents, another who is nonbinary, and two more who treat sex like a kind of globe-trotting all-you-can-eat buffet. Here, the medium is the message; the rest is as nasty — and ultimately chaotic, tenderhearted, and yes, joyful — as it wants to be.

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