Blending seemingly contradictory Jewish clichés, Jennifer Lawrence’s Netflix sex comedy works better than it should

No Hard Feelings — now streaming on Netflix — is a “raunchy sex comedy” that is unusual in at least three different ways. First, as the double-entendre of the title suggests, there is almost no sex, despite the claims of nerdy high school senior Percy Becker (Andrew Barth Feldman). Second, Jennifer Lawrence chooses to play a scene with gratuitous full-frontal nudity with neither significant (deliberate) erotic nor comedic payoff. And third, there is the film’s tacit mashup of two, seemingly contradictory, screen tropes: “gentile Jew-chaser” and “shiksa goddess.”

Although using both of these devices at once would seem to undercut any dramatic conflict, director Gene Stupnitsky manages to find obstacles aplenty to stop any simple pairing up of two people drawn to each other. In Stupnitsky’s follow-up to his surprisingly fun R-rated middle school comedy Good Boys from 2019, Percy’s helicopter parents worry that poor, introvert Percy will not be able to cope socially at Princeton once he leaves the tiny protective bubble they have placed around their home in Montauk, Long Island.

Reminiscing fondly about his own socio-sexual awakening, and the young woman who was vital to making it happen, Percy’s father suggests engineering a similar moment for Percy. Played with blundering goodwill by Matthew Broderick — the real-life Jewish man that the real-life Jewish Sarah Jessica Parker married — Laird Becker posts on Craigslist, looking for a woman in her 20s to “fake date” his son.

When 32-year-old Maddie Barker (Jennifer Lawrence) signs up for the job, predictable hijinks ensue. She has to ace the interview with the parents (satire), seduce Percy (slapstick), the two have to genuinely fall for each other (awkward tenderness), and she has to trip over the generation difference between 18 and 32 (bemusement at social media). Then, at the end of all the lies and learning from each other, there has to be a denouement. What seems to have been a collision of two attraction tropes is, actually, neither.

Although they were each excited about it for their own reasons, neither of them ever seemed into the relationship. Maddie was promised a used car to seduce Percy, bring him out of his shell, and “date him, date him hard.” Rather than being paid cash, earning “grandma’s old car” makes it feel less like sex work. And using the car to Uber so she can save her late mom’s house from foreclosure in gentrifying Montauk, makes her motivation seem like charity rather than desire or prostitution. Percy, for his part, goes from being extremely flustered at her attention to wanting an emotional connection to being disgusted by the whole pretense and deception of it. So though he is excited — even over-excited at crucial moments — he never seemed wholeheartedly into the relationship.

Instead of becoming the girlfriend Percy never had, Maddie becomes the sibling he never had. She replaces in his affections the overprotective male nanny to whom Percy was childishly over-attached. The connection the two sweetly forged in deceit, lucre and fumbling lust somehow endures. Someone who is effectively an orphan learns from a bubble-child; an introverted virgin learns from his older, bolder experienced friend; an embittered adult with a penchant for sabotaging relationships learns about longer-term nurturing of attachments from a naive romantic.

Spoilers. Percy and Maddie end the film leaving the Becker family house, stepping into the car that Maddie earned, so she can drop him off at Princeton as she drives off to California. They are joined by Milo — the beloved dog we meet at their first deliberate-ambush-meet-cute at the pet store where Percy is shown working to prove to the audience that he’s a lovely kid. Maddie, who Percy initially deemed entirely unqualified to adopt, has grown — and to prove it has adopted Milo. Both Maddie and Percy have been transformed for the better, and there’s a platonic bond between them that we, finally, believe in. It seems that, though the drama took some turns Laird had not envisaged, the outcome was as he intended. It turns out that — even in deploying absurdly bad ideas — Jewish dads can be right after all.