No Hard Feelings review: Jennifer Lawrence elevates dubious sex comedy
A likeable cast led by a terrific Lawrence make this more than just a run-of-the-mill romp.
In the current landscape, the sex comedy can be tricky terrain for even the most cautious or conscientious film-maker. Certainly, a movie in which a 32-year-old man agrees to seduce a 19-year-old girl for material gain would raise eyebrows, but is the premise any more acceptable when the genders are reversed?
As No Hard Feelings opens, cash-strapped good-time gal Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence)
is stirred from slumber one morning by the sound of her car being repossessed, the vehicle vital to her work as an Uber driver to help pay off soaring back taxes and avoid losing her home as well.
Alerted to an online ad from a wealthy middle-aged couple looking for someone to “date” their Princeton-bound introvert son in return for a shiny new saloon, Maddie sees a solution to her problems.
On meeting the concerned helicopter parents, it’s quickly established that their coy use of the D-word translates as going all the way and taking the virginity of young Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman in his first leading role), and at no point should he learn Maddie is a deflowerer for hire. How’s that for a flag to an inventively-staged reveal later in the narrative?
Inevitably, not all goes according to plan, and the pair’s first few rendezvous are beset with hiccups and hurdles, ranging from laugh-out-loud cartoon violence to genuinely touching interludes and the blossoming of an unlikely friendship.
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In the latter respect, the script, co-written by director Gene Stupnitsky, aims to pivot from broad humour to a reflective coming-of-age story where both leads learn more about themselves.
The lazy innuendo of the film’s title doesn’t do it any favours, nor does the fact Feldman looks considerably younger than 19, but there are at least attempts, albeit brief ones, to question the morality of Maddie’s task.
She seeks the counsel of her best friends (strong, wisecracking support from Natalie Morales and Scott MacArthur), but ultimately decides reward trumps any reticence she might harbour.
Stupnitsky has previous form for seemingly shallow (anti-)heroines, his screenplay for 2011’s Bad Teacher casting Cameron Diaz as a manipulative educator employing fair means or foul to raise money for breast enlargement surgery.
Here, however, the protagonist is arguably less mercenary, but it’s to Lawrence’s credit her character sidesteps tart-with-a-heart-of-gold clichés.
The four-time Oscar nominee, in her first headlining out-and-out comedy role, gives raunchy Maddie a grounding and substance the likes of, say, Amy Schumer (to whom Lawrence bears a passing resemblance) might struggle to achieve.
Her pithy putdowns in exchanges with boorish former beaus are a delight, she attacks the physicality of pratfalls with aplomb, then leavens the plot with thoughtful, dramatic reserve.
She’s matched most of the way by Feldman as the naive Percy, achingly funny when startled by the clattering of balls on a pool table or taking his first sip of alcohol, and heartbreakingly vulnerable as he sings a piano-ballad arrangement of the upbeat 1980s Hall & Oates hit Maneater (an unexpected showstopper).
It’s the innate likeability of both leads that prevents No Hard Feelings from coming across as just a run-of-the-mill romp with not enough top-drawer gags and a dubious starting point.
In fairness to Stupnitsky, there are wider efforts to examine political incorrectness, but the sequence where Maddie is chased by phone-wielding, youthful TikTok-ers who angrily interpret an off-the-cuff insult as blatant homophobia flashes by in an instant.
Similarly, the film’s only nude scene, with skinny-dipping Maddie beating up a trio of teens who’ve stolen her and Percy’s clothes, is resolutely not played for titillation.
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As motivational tools go, the suggestion Maddie, born and raised in the coastal haven of Montauk, Long Island, only embraces desperate measures to pay her way because rich summer visitors are forcing blue-collar locals out of the property market isn’t especially solid. It has intermittent value in setting up comic friction between the haves and have-nots, but it’s social commentary at its most undercooked and woolliest.
The briefest synopsis of the film, in tandem with its title, could be enough to dissuade some cinemagoers from giving it a try, regardless of the attraction of across-the-board quality performances (Matthew Broderick’s slightly creepy turn as Percy’s dad also warrants a shout-out).
But whatever ethical debates it may or may not spark, it’s nonetheless a neatly constructed off-piste romcom whose potential misgivings are at least partially redressed by a rich helping of charm.
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