No Hard Feelings
Jennifer Lawrence is a comic powerhouse in this sometimes-OTT, sometimes-sweet age-gap comedy that's inspired by a real-life Craigslist ad.
June 22, 2023
Has Jennifer Lawrence entered her Jennifer Coolidge era? With the spirit of American Pie lingering over No Hard Feelings like unpaid property taxes — a pivotal part of the movie's plot — the Silver Linings Playbook Oscar-winner and Winter's Bone, Hunger Games, X-Men and mother! star is flirting with that direction and loving it. No one sticks their genitalia in a warm home-baked dessert or talks about band camp in Lawrence's latest film, but it is a sex comedy about an inexperienced teenager that includes parents giving clumsy advice. It also involves getting lucky with an older woman; while Lawrence is only 32 and plays it here, an age gap — as well as the chasms between millennials and zoomers, and with the generations prior — is essential to the narrative.
The spirit of Coolidge, a game Lawrence, gags about Hall & Oates' 1982 earworm 'Maneater' — a storyline that somewhat riffs on its lyrics, in fact — and battles over class, generational differences and gentrification: that's No Hard Feelings. Based on a real-life Craigslist ad, it's also the next movie from filmmaker Gene Stupnitsky, who penned Bad Teacher and made his feature directorial debut with Good Boys. Where the latter took a Superbad-esque setup but swapped 17-year-olds out for sixth graders, his second flick as a helmer tells a coming-of-age tale on two levels. Percy Becker (Andrew Barth Feldman, White Noise) is the introverted brainiac whose helicopter parents (Daybreak's Matthew Broderick and Life & Beth's Laura Benanti) want to live a little before he hits Princeton University, while Maddie Barker (Lawrence, Causeway) is the bartender and Uber driver who's been in a state of arrested development ever since giving up her plans to surf California's beaches when her mother got sick.
Those taxes? Maddie owes them on her Montauk house, which she inherited from and remains in while the New York hamlet she grew up in is inundated by wealthy holidaymakers. And those tourists? Sweeping in for only part of the year, splashing around cash and causing property values to skyrocket while pushing locals out, they're the reason that Maddie's debt is so hefty. They're also why Percy and his family are in town for the summer. And, in general, those rich interlopers are a prime target for Maddie's anger, unsurprisingly. Still, usually the well-to-do influx helps boost her finances — driving folks around in a vacation town while the weather's right can be lucrative — but her car has just been repossessed, hence an advertisement offering a Buick Regal for dating and sleeping with Percy earning her attention.
"These people use us, so why don't we use them?" is Maddie's pregnant pal Sara's (Natalie Morales, Dead to Me) take on the situation. Sporting that exact mindset, Maddie commits. The Beckers want her to bring their shy, reclusive and neurotic son out of his bedroom by taking him to bed — patriarch Laird fondly recalls his own first youthful fling, with Stupnitsky adding an extra layer by having Ferris Bueller's Day Off great Broderick in the role — and Percy has no idea about the deal. Whether Maddie is asking to touch his wiener at his animal-shelter volunteer job, inadvertently getting him suspecting that he's being kidnapped by offering him a lift in Sara's spouse Jim's (Scott MacArthur, Killing It) van filled with machetes and harpoons, teaching him how to drink Long Island iced teas, or taking him skinny dipping by moonlight and fighting the pranksters who try to steal their clothes in the nude, seducing the college-bound young man is far from an easy gig.
Co-scripting with John Phillips (Dirty Grandpa), Stupnitsky also has both Percy and Maddie clutch onto the bonnet of speeding cars, and throws in hectic faux prom nights and eventful pre-uni parties; however, the raunchiest thing about No Hard Feelings is largely its premise. Bawdy humour still echoes, especially when Maddie is playing the libidinous part she's being paid to — but, as she genuinely starts to connect with Percy as a friend, so does earnestness. She's initially willing to slip between the sheets to get her life back on track, and pretends to be the stereotypical teen-boy fantasy to do so. He wants to talk, get to know her and build something physical out of a true emotional bond. Of course the film that results seesaws between the ribald and sweet, and of course it's never completely one or the other. That isn't a failure of nerve, but reflects the chaos that is growing up even when you're already supposed to be grown up.
No Hard Feelings is rarely as consistently funny as it wants to be, but it'd be far more awkward than it's meant to be if Maddie and Percy weren't so well cast. The luminous Lawrence is a comic dream, no matter if Maddie is cringing at her own behaviour, bluntly decrying teens today and the ultra-rich always, attempting to climb stairs in rollerblades or turning on the sultriness. She serves up a physical comedy masterclass, and long may amusing movies that call upon her laugh-inducing skills keep joining her resume (well, other than the smug Don't Look Up). She's such a natural here that wanting No Hard Feelings to constantly ramp up the OTT antics stems wholly from her performance. (Also, as Coolidge keeps popping to mind, who wouldn't want to see Lawrence in The White Lotus in the future, whether in Thailand or wherever future seasons of the hit HBO series end up.)
Feldman, who took time out from high school IRL to play the titular part in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway for a spell and then from uni for this, brings nuance to what could've been a stock-standard nerdy character in other hands. The key to his performance, and to Lawrence's: amid the overtly comic moments, they each know that they're stepping into the shoes of people who are stuck and struggling in their own ways, and they're sincere about having Maddie and Percy work through that together. So, crucially, is the sunnily shot picture itself. Although it's better when Stupnitsky and Phillips put their faith the movie's central portrayals rather than getting thematically heavy-handed, and it's also gleefully formulaic, No Hard Feelings has film-stealing stark-naked brawls, Lawrence in go-for-broke comedic mode, and insight and heart.
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