movie review

No Hard Feelings Makes It Look Easy

No Hard Feelings.
No Hard Feelings. Photo: Macall Polay/Sony Pictures

Too earnest perhaps to qualify as a sex comedy, and not quite romantic enough to count as a romantic comedy, No Hard Feelings is a perfect example of how the best kind of onscreen chemistry is fundamentally unquantifiable. The premise is simple, raunchy, maybe even transgressive for our oh-so-prudish times: Jennifer Lawrence plays Maddie Barker, a 32-year-old Montauk bartender and Uber driver who accepts a paid gig to have sex with Percy Becker (Andrew Barth Feldman), the painfully shy, Princeton-bound 19-year-old son of a wealthy couple who want him to come out of his shell and gain confidence before heading off to college. A Montauk native, Maddie can’t stand the rich, gentrifying jagoffs who spend only part of the year in her hometown, buying up property and pushing locals out of the area. But she takes the job because there’s a Buick Regal at the end of it, and her car was just repossessed ahead of the busy (and lucrative) summer season. Besides, as one of Maddie’s friends puts it: “These people use us. So why don’t we use them?”

There’s a light dusting of class warfare across No Hard Feelings, though it’s of the mild, informational kind, serving primarily to give Maddie some dimension. She could sell the house she lives in for a lot of money, but it belonged to her late mother and Maddie remains attached to it. She has contempt for Percy’s parents (played with wonderfully decorous smugness by Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) but is always on her best behavior around them. Percy, of course, has no idea that his mom and dad are doing this for him, the same way that so many helicopter-parented kids never quite realize how much of the world they live in is a constructed safe space.

What makes the movie is the give-and-take between the polite, confused zoomer and this increasingly desperate woman who comes on so strongly that she can’t even keep up with herself. Maddie first approaches Percy at the animal shelter where he volunteers and attempts to adopt a dog from him, while delivering a litany of double entendres and other uncomfortable come-ons. Asked why she wants to adopt a dog, she replies, “Because I can’t have dogs of my own,” and her subtle grimace at the idiocy of her own words is maybe the best two seconds of acting I’ve seen this year.

Maddie’s ridiculously aggressive, mile-a-minute faux horniness collides perfectly with Percy’s tense befuddlement. When she tries to seduce him in a borrowed, windowless green van filled with machetes and harpoons, he naturally assumes he’s being kidnapped and maces her. “Why couldn’t you have used your rape whistle?” she cries, cowering in pain on the ground. “Why would I have a rape whistle?” he yells. “Why do you fucking have mace?” she shrieks back. This might sound like a totally inappropriate thing to be joking about, and it probably is, but the accelerating energy of the two actors lends the scene a delirious, discomfiting screwball quality. A similarly twisted alchemy occurs during a skinny-dipping excursion gone wrong, one that ends with a nighttime beach smackdown in which Lawrence goes full naked Long Island Terminatrix on a bunch of hapless young pranksters.

No Hard Feelings isn’t really about sex. It’s about two people who can’t move on with their lives — one because she refuses to, the other because he’s not allowed to. Circumstances have reduced Maddie to a state of pure aggression, and we feel the foulmouthed, physical freedom of Lawrence’s performance. So much so that when the film does inevitably settle down for some sincere, quiet moments, it can seem like we’re suddenly watching a different movie. The director, Gene Stupnitsky, previously directed Good Boys (2019) and co-wrote Bad Teacher (2011), so he’s already mastered the art of raunch. It’s understandable that he might want to put a bit more “heart” into this one, though it’s always preferable when said heart emerges organically from the lunacy onscreen and doesn’t feel so compartmentalized. One reason the more sentimental scenes don’t quite work is because the movie’s themes don’t need the obligatory spelling out.

These types of pictures tend to run on predictable rails. (That’s not always a bad thing; mainstream comedies need formulas to let us know, subconsciously, that it’s okay to laugh.) In the case of No Hard Feelings, the actors make both the complexity and the comedy look easy. It’s hard at times to figure out just what exactly Feldman’s Percy is thinking, but this actually gives the movie its punch. He’s a lot more centered than he first seems; in some ways, he’s more in control of his world than the adult woman running circles around him. We see the boy’s loneliness, but we also see that he lives in a world where solitude and alienation are rampant. At one point, Maddie wanders around a big house party looking in all the rooms, filled with college-bound teens on phones and virtual headsets. “Doesn’t anyone fuck anymore?” she says.

This woman is perpetually out of place, while the boy simply refuses to make a place for himself, which is probably true of a lot of his peers. As a result, we never quite know where their relationship is headed — their real relationship, not the carnal MacGuffin of whether they’re gonna get it on or not — and we care for them not because of their backstories but because they seem bound to each other, like a yin-yang of emotional restlessness. For all its breeziness, No Hard Feelings stays with you because its central dynamic feels so surprisingly honest.

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No Hard Feelings Makes It Look Easy