From a blue-skinned shapeshifter to a bow-wielding dystopian hero, we’ve seen many different sides of Jennifer Lawrence over the years, but to watch such a naturally charismatic movie star freed from her franchise commitments has felt, thrillingly, like a fresh start for the actress.
That isn’t to say that Sony’s new raunchy comedy No Hard Feelings, which Lawrence also produced, will be remembered as one of her best films. Indeed, director Gene Stupnitksy‘s genially cartoonish and sweet-natured attempt to resuscitate the R-rated studio comedy, sold on its star’s wattage and the promise of watching her cut hysterically loose, isn’t much of a film outside of Lawrence’s lead performance.
But what a performance it is! As Maddie, a gig-economy worker hired by a withdrawn teenager’s rich parents to “date” him out of his shell before college, Lawrence seizes every scene with clear gusto, delivering a lovably goofy star turn that runs the gauntlet from bawdy slapstick to playful screwball and emotional realism, even if the film around her more nimbly accommodates some of those comic modes than others.
Set in Montauk, a middle-class Long Island hamlet overrun each summer by Manhattan’s elite, the film opens as Maddie, a cash-strapped Uber driver, part-time bartender, and lifelong townie, fails to prevent her grumpy, tow-truck-driving ex Gary (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) from repossessing her car. With unpaid property tax bills looming, Maddie needs wheels outside of her rollerblades.
Luckily, she soon encounters the world’s most uncomfortable Craigslist ad, courtesy of a pair of helicopter parents (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) who fear their shy 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) might head to Princeton in the fall without ever having had a girlfriend. (The horror!) “I’ll date his brains out,” Maddie vows after huffing, one rollerblade at a time, up a long, sloping driveway to the family’s stunning, glass-and-steel mansion.
Her prize? An old Buick Regal, rusting away at the family’s summer home. Maddie agrees to this more-than-slightly dubious detour into sex work, and to the condition that Percy can’t know the truth about this arrangement. Cue scenes in which Maddie pulls out all the stops to seduce the virginal Percy at the animal shelter where he works, purring her way through increasingly open insinuations in a skin-tight dress as he, wide-eyed, holds a dachshund.
That Percy proves a tougher nut to crack than Maddie might presume all but goes without saying; Barth Feldman gradually opens up the character’s neuroses into something resembling a true comic counterpoint for Lawrence, but he’s asked to play sexless and disinterested so as to fend off her aggressive advances in ways that ultimately strain credulity and make Percy’s motivations overly malleable to the needs of the plot. In this way, the film’s just-passable script, credited to Stupnitsky and John Phillips, introduces an edgy premise and proceeds to soften its edges down into something far smoother and easier — a sentimental odd-couple comedy with F-bombs.
No Hard Feelings settles into a slow, amiable-enough groove as the two make their way around Montauk, and Maddie’s own emotional baggage involving an absent father comes sporadically into view, giving Lawrence another opportunity to infuse the lackadaisical proceedings with some small sense of pathos. Still, the film feels thin-sketched and often takes the path of least resistance in its approach to socioeconomic satire and generational-divide comedy (or both, as in the sequence where Maddie crashes a high school party in order to rescue Percy from a love interest his own age, only for his fellow teenagers to turn on her en masse after an ill-advised, largely inoffensive gay joke).
As much raunchy fun as it can be to watch Lawrence barrel her way through such material, No Hard Feelings often feels like a concept in search of a movie. Much like Stupnitsky’s Good Boys, an R-rated comedy about tweens becoming teens that felt like a step-cousin to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg‘s Superbad but also a step down from its foul-mouthed comic heights, the film nods to ’00s sex comedies like There’s Something About Mary without a script that supplies that special something to differentiate its overworked premise.
Arriving as it does on the heels of Adam McKay‘s broadly unfunny climate satire Don’t Look Up, in which she played smart and spiky, and Lila Neugebauer‘s psychological drama Causeway, which was a showcase for her intuitive and meticulously detailed approach to character portraiture, you couldn’t really call No Hard Feelings a comeback for Lawrence, but it does mark her return to playing what feels, in many ways, like a classic type. Akin to those delightfully screwy comic whirlwinds she so forcefully embodied in her David O. Russell collaborations Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Lawrence makes Maddie’s chaos completely irresistible in No Hard Feelings, leaning into the physical and psychological precarity of the character’s various compromising positions without losing sight of her emotional core.
Consider the already much-ballyhooed sequence in which Maddie emerges from skinny-dipping in the ocean with Percy to deliver a savage beatdown to three drunken revelers who’ve dared to steal their clothes. Fully nude and ferocious, Lawrence has the element of surprise on her side and weaponizes it across a ridiculous and brutal few minutes of physical comedy, eyes blazing as Maddie lays it all out and scrappily gains the upper hand against these interlopers.
It’s the most outrageously funny moment in a film that, despite Lawrence’s efforts, could have used a few more. No Hard Feelings is a surprisingly breezy, low-stakes affair, even outside of Maddie’s pursuit of a used Buick, and without the conviction to really dig into the complicated, thorny dynamic that builds between Maddie and Percy, the film goes limp during its rushed and unconvincing third act. A more family-friendly type of happy ending feels like the wrong direction for a premise so primed for provocation, but No Hard Feelings is too soft to stick the landing.
No Hard Feelings is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Sony Pictures.