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The Inertia

No Hard Feelings, the latest rom-com flick from Jennifer Lawrence, despite being set in Montauk (a surfy area) and having a budget of $45 million (more than John Wick: Chapter Two), somehow managed to miss the mark completely in depicting surfing anywhere close to realistically. You’d think that with $45 million to make a story with no crazy special effects or stunt doubles necessary, they’d have a couple thousand to spare for a surf consultant, or even just any random surfer wandering back from the Terrace sandbars. 

Instead, the film – which depicts the story of 32-year-old Uber driver “Maddie” (Jennifer Lawrence) attempting to date 19-year-old “Percy” (Andrew Feldman) after finding a Craigslist ad his parents posted asking for help raising their son’s confidence levels by pretending to like him romantically – posits surfing as a secondary plotline.

Surfers and surfboards are placed strategically from scene to scene. Brand new, unwaxed, leashless shortboards are shown stored in the bright sunlight in a board rack on the front lawn of Maddie’s house. Does Maddie surf? She never talks about surfing, drives a sedan without board racks, and beelines it to a flat beach when she takes Percy to the ocean. 

Even worse, one of the main characters, Jim, is supposed to be a surfer, played by believably surfy-looking Scott MacArthur. Points given that he drives a van, but points redacted for there being nothing in the van. No wax, no leashes, no wetsuits, no tubs to soak booties… nothing. For his big surf scene, the waves are completely flat when he walks up the boardwalk back to Maddie and his wife Sara. The three get into some kind of jokey argument, and Sara tells him to go back in the water. Jim mopily carries his shortboard back to the dead-flat ocean and paddles away. 

I’m not faulting the director, Gene Stupnitsky, for including surfing in the plot. The movie is set in Montauk, after all. It adds a layer of realism. People who live near the ocean, with surf spots galore, would surf. But would it be so hard to attempt to portray it anywhere close to accurately? It is far better to leave surfing out completely than to expect the audience to believe lifelong Montak-ers are a bunch of kooks. Balaram Stack, who won the 2022 Pipe Masters, grew up in Long Island. There are good surfers in New York!

Sadly, there is a long history of mainstream cinema capitalizing off surf culture with no added realism or input from actual surfers. Besides Big Wednesday, a mainstream surf movie that largely gets surfing right, there have been many tries and fails to portray surfing. Case in point, the film Surfer, Dude released in 2008, starring Matthew McConaughey. 

Despite Matthew being easy on the eyes, even boasting a surfy vibe with his long, blonde hair, from the trailer alone, one can assume this is a hard watch. Drawing from basically every stupid surfing cliché (calling everyone “dude” or “bro”) and being set in none other than Malibu, McConaughey talks in a slow, dumb drawl the entire time, all while answering the question of “what’s your occupation?” with the ridiculous answer of “surfer!” Even professional surfers would be hard pressed to say that’s their full-time job, and I can’t think of anyone, surfer or otherwise, who says “you’re harshing my mellow” to someone else, straight-faced, without some sense of irony. 

The straw on the camel’s back comes from the shot of McConaughey staring out over the ocean, saying, “the report said surf, that looks like a lake,” as if A, the report said “surf,” no other information needed, and B, Malibu ever looks like more than a lake (okay, I’m kidding, but seriously man, drive somewhere else if you’re looking to get wet). 

Of course, I understand these are Hollywood movies and not documentaries, and these are paid actors and not professional surfers, but I would like to know how hard it can possibly be to fact check surf lingo here and there. Heck, there’s an entire Encyclopedia of Surfing dedicated to providing enough knowledge for anyone to learn the basics of surf culture and then some after reading through a couple entries. There are also surf magazines, surf movies, and surfers everywhere: you’re basing a movie in Malibu but can’t listen to actual surfers talk for five minutes?

And if you think I’m being dramatic, think about the portrayal of other sports compared to the portrayal of surfing. No one would think of assigning a character to be a baseball player, and then sending him onto set wearing hiking boots. Or casting a character to be a professional swimmer and dressing them in a string bikini. Details matter; it’s distracting when things are so blatantly wrong. Surf nerds like me spend the entire movie focusing on the weird set details instead of the storyline. 

The saving grace for Surfer, Dude is that Willie Nelson is featured in it. But as for No Hard Feelings? Without any special guests, I’m not sure it gets a pass. I can look past the weird sexual setup of a 32-year-old woman dating a 19-year-old for money. But leaving your CI Mid in the baking hot sun for a whole summer? That’s unforgivable. 

 
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