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No Laughing Matter
‘Bottoms,’ ‘No Hard Feelings,’ and the dire financial state of the R-Rated comedy.
I HAVE THE SNEAKING SUSPICION THAT, were I encountering Bottoms for the first time in college on DVD—or via Pirate Bay, or however it is that the young people these days watch their moving pictures in the comfort of their own homes, wherein they can consume illicit substances unavailable to them at respectable establishments—it would quickly go into heavy rotation alongside other goofy classics like Wet Hot American Summer or Zoolander, to pick two titles from my own wayward youth.
As it is, I walked out of Bottoms feeling approximately one million years old.
Part of my ennui stems from being tonally out of step with its sense of humor. Bottoms feels like it’s stuck in between two comic modes. Concerning the creation of a lesbian fight club by PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) in the hopes that it will convince the girls in their class to consider them worthy of romantic interest, the action isn’t quite surreal or stylized enough to work like Heathers works, and it’s not quite realistic enough to work like Mean Girls works. Mixing the two sensibilities feels like a lack of commitment, but maybe it’s just a whole different vibe, one that didn’t vibrate with me.
The thing that has stuck with me since seeing it a week ago is just how safe the whole movie plays . . . everything. We’re never really given a reason to hate the football players who serve as the butt of so many jokes; they’re just the expected targets. Indeed, hunky quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) is almost charming in his cluelessness, while the scheming Tim (Miles Fowler) isn’t quite devious enough to prompt hatred. Feminism and its various waves are routinely name-checked, but never in a way that surprises or works as a jab. Forget punching up or punching down: Bottoms keeps its hands open, rarely landing a slap.
But again: Comedic sensibilities change, and maybe I’m just aging out. I now empathize with the fogeys who couldn’t cotton to the shambolic nature of Caddyshack or recognize the stoner genius of Super Troopers. I am become Bosley Crowther, Destroyer of Hip.
This isn’t to say the movie is bereft of laughs. Sennott and Edebiri are frequently very funny in their deadpan intonations; that they’re both a decade too old for high school is never commented upon but always vaguely present. Marshawn Lynch, who stars as a teacher going through a divorce, supposedly improvised most of his lines, and I found solace in his befuddlement. Occasionally director Emma Seligman, who cowrote with Sennott, really leans into the absurdity, and that’s when the picture is at its best; the moment when a gaggle of girls fail at toilet-papering Jeff’s home but succeed in blowing up his car with a homemade pipe bomb is laugh-out-loud funny.
But then, I’m a relic of an age in which the height of comedy involved overstuffed news anchors doing battle with one another in a parking lot, tridents and machetes alike setting blood to flow and nothing resembling anything close to the real world. So maybe I just don’t get it.
No Hard Feelings, on the other hand, I get.
Now available for rental or purchase on VOD, the concept is high: parents offer used car to woman if she deflowers their nerdy virgin son before he heads off to college; hijinks ensue. Jennifer Lawrence plays Maddie, a down-on-her-luck local in Montauk who needs quick access to a car so she can continue her side hustle as an Uber driver in an effort to stave off foreclosure on her home. Andrew Barth Feldman plays Percy, the nerdy virgin who pepper sprays Maddie the first time she comes on to him. The two come to understand and respect each other, but not before a boatload of awkward situations induce laughter from the audience.
The whole picture works because Jennifer Lawrence is one of the funniest physical comediennes of her era; it’s a real shame that she spent a decade playing noted sourpuss Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and its sequels, as she has better comic timing than just about anyone else from her age cohort. Her timing with dialogue is not only excellent, she also owns a face that transitions seamlessly from charming sexpot to panicked-woman-gulping-for-air-after-being-accidentally-throat-punched.
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It helps that Lawrence is absolutely fearless, a fact demonstrated by her much-remarked-upon completely nude fight on a Montauk beach against a gang of kids trying to steal her clothes. It’s an absurd-but-real moment, perfectly reflective of Maddie’s tough, pragmatic character. If Bottoms is in the lineage of Animal House and Caddyshack, then No Hard Feelings is a direct descendant of the Apatow School of Comedy as represented by The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up: This is about adults with adult problems in something resembling the real world, even if it’s not quite our world. It’s the world of our buddies who never managed to find the right person and get married and settle down and start a family.
Fearlessness is, maybe, what’s lacking from Bottoms. It’s not that the comedy in that film is rote or by the numbers—again, there were enough weirdo gags that I left wanting more—but it does feel a bit timid about its choice of targets. Whereas last year’s Bodies Bodies Bodies (also starring Sennott in what is perhaps her finest performance) took ruthless aim at the intellectual foibles of younger millennials and older zoomers, Bottoms feels like it’s a little afraid to really examine some of the tensions at the heart of the Gen Z project.
Another thing that’s lacking: audiences. But this is a problem across the board for R-rated comedies. Bottoms will likely wind up doing fine, because it was relatively cheap and seems to be hitting a chord with the younger Letterboxd set (indeed, it had one of the biggest per-theater openings of the year in limited release). But No Hard Feelings underwhelmed at the box office, as did Strays, as did Theater Camp. Asteroid City is in a slightly different category, though it’s also clearly an R-rated comedy, and it did . . . okay. Not great. Just okay. For all the talk about the success of original projects this year—depending on how you want to classify the Barbenheimmer juggernaut—the original comedy still seems to be in a funk.