at the box office

The Summer of the R-rated Comedy Is Off to a Rocky Start at the Box Office

Coming from the first of four R-rated studio comedies in theaters this summer, No Hard Feelings’s tepid debut could have a chilling effect. Photo: Macall Polay/Sony Pictures

In the R-rated raunch-comedy No Hard Feelings, Jennifer Lawrence plays Maddie, a commitment-phobic 30-something Montauk surfer girl–Uber driver with her back against the proverbial wall. When Maddie’s car is impounded — threatening her livelihood as well as imminent IRS foreclosure on her family home — she agrees to “date date” (in the high-class-escort sense of the term) Percy, a virginal 19-year-old basket case (played by newcomer Andrew Barth Feldman) in exchange for a used Buick Regal (courtesy of the boy’s well-to-do helicopter parents, who want his cherry popped before he heads to college).

As the movie heads into wide release in 3,000 North American theaters Friday, however, No Hard Feelings finds itself with its back against the wall too. According to prerelease “tracking” estimates and advance ticket sales, the risqué romp — which features an energetically bawdy performance from Lawrence, who appears stark naked in an Eastern Promises–meets–The OC fight scene — is set to take in between $9 million and $11 million over its first three days. That would be a bad enough showing for any J-Law star vehicle hitting screens at the peak of blockbuster season, let alone when compared to successful comedies with the same MPAA rating: writer-director Gene Stupnitsky’s previous abomination comedy Good Boys (which opened to $21.4 million in 2019 en route to a $111 million gross) and Universal’s extravagantly profane Cocaine Bear, which snorted up $23.2 million over its February debut, covering a healthy chunk of the movie’s $35 million price tag. If previously reported budget numbers placing NHF’s production costs around $70 million are to be believed (though the studio is currently reporting closer to $45 million), a seven-figure opening would rank as an outright catastrophe.

But on a more macro level, coming from the leadoff batter for a quartet of R-rated, theatrically distributed studio comedies rolling out this summer, No Hard Feelings’s tepid debut could have a chilling effect on a genre that has all but vanished from multiplexes in recent years. On July 7, Lionsgate will roll out Joy Ride, its ensemble Asian American comedic odyssey of funky sex and self-discovery; on August 18, Universal’s Strays (an anthropomorphic dog laffer voiced by Will Ferrell, Randall Park, and Jamie Foxx, offering a kind of ribald riposte to 1993’s Homeward Bound) picks up the trail; and that one is followed closely by Bottoms (Orion-MGM, August 25), an Elizabeth Banks–produced coming-of-age comedy following two “ugly, untalented” female high-school seniors who set up a fight club as a ruse to seduce cheerleaders.

In the lead-up to the release of Feelings, backlot chieftains at competing studios are actively rooting for the film’s success if for no other reason than to prime consumer behavior, effectively retraining them to enjoy the unique pleasures of bawdy comedy, such as watching star-producer Lawrence twerk clumsily, light her butt on fire, and help a teenager achieve premature ejaculation.

Nevertheless, industry insiders remain gimlet-eyed about the financial benchmarks No Hard Feelings must meet in order to achieve cultural and commercial liftoff. “It will need to hit $20 million for people to be excited,” says an executive at a rival studio. “It’s really hard to push a not-that-funny comedy if it doesn’t have a great concept. And I think this concept is terrible. When the first trailer came out people were like, What the fuck? Really? She’s going to sleep with some guy? It was so distasteful and weird that it just didn’t seem like a great idea.”

Confounding matters is the fact that unlike, say, Fast X, which earned almost three times as much internationally as it did in North America, comedy — and in particular humor of the hard-R variety — doesn’t travel well overseas. Conservative audiences in the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of Asia are unlikely to warm to Feelings’s scenes of vomit humor, making it difficult for the studio to recoup on a prints-and-advertising spend estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. “There’s no international value to the movie,” this exec continues. “So you’re lucky if you do $40 million or $50 million worldwide.”

Time was, way back in the ’80s and ’90s, it seemed as though an R-rated comedy like Porky’s or Friday or American Pie skulked into the multiplex like a dirty joke every few days. But over the last 15 years or so, as increasing cultural sensitivities have placed certain jokes and even milieus entirely off limits, the genre migrated to become the almost exclusive province of streaming services — minus the R rating, of course. The scant few bawdy comedies that have reached theaters in the post-Hangover era, meanwhile, were made on the cheap.

In one outward sign of Hollywood’s continuing risk aversion, last month Universal moved Strays — which embarks with Ferrell’s doggy character, Reggie, announcing an intention to bite his “owner’s dick off” and features scenes of canines tripping on shrooms — off its original June 9 release and onto an August rollout. Exhibitor Relations senior box-office analyst Jeff Bock, for one, feels the studio made the right move. “I know we consider August the dumpster bin of summer, but it’s not a bad place for that film,” he says. “Late in the summer. R-rated. It’s got Jamie Foxx and Will Ferrell: I think it’s a strong move by Universal. The genre is ripe for lampooning all the Disney animals-on-a-journey films. It just feels right.”

Although Joy Ride in all likelihood cost less than half the No Hard Feelings production budget — plotted around the ribald road-trip antics of likable but not-yet-bankable stars Stephanie Hsu, Cherry Cola, Ashley Park, and Sabrina Wu — its threshold for success is considerably lower than some of the summer’s other R-rated entries. Thanks to an unusual film-financing structure, the studio presells international distribution rights and pre-arranges global P&A to the point where close to half of its movies’ negative costs are already recouped before a single frame is illuminated inside a theater. That ultimately means a film with a soft opening that might qualify as a flop for Sony or Universal could count as a franchise-starting hit for Lionsgate. (A not altogether unlikely scenario considering Joy Ride opens on the same weekend as Insidious: The Red Door, a week out from Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s debut in theaters, and one week ahead of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.)

With streaming giants all but cornering the market on heftier budget, star-driven feature-length raunch-comedies — see: Netflix’s craptacularly reviewed, Adam Sandler-starring The Ridiculous 6 and 2020’s Oscar-nominated Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — Bock feels a lackluster opening for No Hard Feelings could entrench Hollywood’s mindset that shelling out top fees for a star of Lawrence’s caliber to appear in adult comedy is wasted money. The 32-year-old actress was expected to “open” the movie based on her drawing power around a certain multibillion-dollar-grossing bow-and-arrow film franchise. But industry perception holds that with NHF, she may be outside her lane. “The takeaway will probably be that people don’t want to see Jennifer Lawrence in this type of role,” Bock explains. “They want to see her in Katnissland again, and maybe she’ll go back to do another Hunger Games. That’s just the fickle nature of the box-office beast. If your genre’s struggling, you’re going to have a hard time green-lighting no matter who’s attached to it.”

If by some chance all of summer 2023’s hard-R comedies “whiff” at the box office, analysts and executives alike expect studios to effectively relinquish them to the cinematic dustbin again alongside westerns and erotic thrillers, which have similarly receded from theaters. “Hollywood chases trends,” Bock says. “And if all these films fail to live up to expectations, then absolutely, Hollywood is going to shy away from the R-rated comedy.”

The Summer of the R-rated Comedy Is Off to a Rocky Start