A film review by Craig J. Koban September 14, 2023


2023, R, 135 mins.

Jennifer Lawrence as Maddie Barker  /  Andrew Barth Feldman as Percy Becker  /  Laura Benanti as Allison Becker  /  Matthew Broderick as Laird Becker  /  Natalie Morales as Sara  /  Scott MacArthur as Jim  /  Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Gary  /  Kyle Mooney as Jody  /  Hasan Minhaj as Doug Kahn  /  Jordan Mendoza as Crispin  /  Amalia Yoo as Natalie

Directed by Gene Stupnitsky  /  Written by Gene Stupnitsky and John Phillips



There's a moment during the new comedy NO HARD FEELINGS that made me both gasp in shock and uncontrollably laugh.   

It involves star Jennifer Lawrence in what would easily be considered a thanklessly committed performance.  

Her character is skinny dipping in a nearby lake with her much younger date and soon discovers that some rowdy troublemaking teens start mocking them while confiscating their clothes.  Lawrence emerges from the water (still in her birthday suit) and proceeds to attack the thieves, which ends up spiraling completely out of hand into a sloppy beachside brawl.  At one point, one of the rowdy teen girls punches Lawrence in a vital area that no naked woman would probably ever want to be punched.  

It then dawned on me that Lawrence gives a completely vanity-free performance here that not only throws any inhibitions to the wind, but she's also not afraid of making herself look completely ridiculous while not having a shed of clothing on.  Not too many A-lister Academy Award winning actresses would do what she does here for the sake of a lewd and crude sex comedy.  Scenes like this - and more than a few - in NO HARD FEELINGS made me reflect on something that Mel Brooks once said about making comedies.  He was willing to do anything for a laugh and that "good taste is the enemy of comedy."  No matter how crazy, nonsensical, and potentially off-putting.  To give Lawrence and this film full credit, it seems willing to do the same.  Sometimes to hysterical effect, sometimes not to much.  

But it tries.  And hard.   

And just consider NO HARD FEELINGS fairly icky and potentially offensive (if under the wrong kind of hands) premise.  Lawrence plays a down-on-her-luck thirtysomething Uber driver that is so dirt poor that her car gets repossessed, and in a totally desperate state, she takes up a married couple's ad to become friends with and seduce their chronically shy 19-year-old son (who's about to depart for college and is such a failure on the social scene that his mom and dad worry about his overall well being).  This is ultimately a cringe-beyond belief set-up for just about any film, not to mention that some viewers might have legitimate concerns about NO HARD FEELINGS propping up sexual exploitation and grooming for the sake of laughs.  The early stages of this Gene Stupnitsky comedy most certainly made me squirm in my seat, but as the story progresses and gets settled in it becomes clear that the film - like the early Farrelly Brothers' work - marries raunch with a sentimentality rather well and makes us genuinely care for the characters involved.  That, and it has legitimate things to say about the nature of intimacy, deeply insecure people, and how some young people want meaningfully loving and nurturing relationships that don't initially require sex.  NO HARD FEELINGS pushes the boundaries of taste, to be sure, but there's an undeniable sweetness to its hard R-rated core that mostly won me over.

Maddie (Lawrence) is a 32-year-old loser from Montauk, New York who is facing crippling bankruptcy and the loss of her car (which makes being an Uber driver a difficult thing).  She's also on the verge of losing her family home that her late mother left her.  At her absolute wit's end, she spots a Craiglist ad posted by a ridiculously wealthy local couple, the Beckers (played amusingly by Laura Benanti and a horribly wigged Matthew Broderick).  They want to hire Maddie to - I kid you not - meet, date, and then seal the sexual deal with their horribly introverted son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), before he heads off to Princeton University and a hopefully prestigious career afterwards.  In a very funny interview scene, Maddie matter-of-factly asks the yuppie couple if they want her to "date" their 19-year-old kid or "date him hard."  They reply with the latter.  If Maddie is successful in ending Percy's virginity and allowing him to come out of his tightly sealed emotional shell, then the couple will reward her with an old Buick collecting dust in their driveway.  One catch is that Maddie cannot let Percy know that his parents are behind this mad scheme.  Desperate and needing a car, Maddie gleefully accepts.  I mean...how hard will it be for her (who's pretty easy on the eyes) to woe this young man?   



Unfortunately for her, Percy is so awkward, anxiety riddled, and uncomfortable within his own skin (not to mention that he has no experience with girls, sex, friends, parties, etc.) that her breaking his cherry will take a Herculean effort and a lot of persistence.     

NO HARD FEELINGS generates a lot of early laughs at the expense of this dopey rich couple and their unsavory willingness to take any route required to get their son laid.  They're the type of well-meaning, but laughably irresponsible parents that feel - in their heart of hearts - that hiring Maddie as a prostitute of sorts is the answer to their son's problems.   And, again, let's think about this plan a bit deeper.  Maddie is 32-years-old and Percy isn't outside of his teens.  She's being paid to coerce this lad to bed...by his parents.  Like...wow.  Actually, just imagine if this film had the genders of the characters reversed.  Like...wow-wow.  But, here's the thing: Stupnitsky (who previously co-wrote the very funny and very vulgar GOOD BOYS) goes out of his way here to ensure that his film is very self-aware and understanding of just how creepy this whole scheme is and - in turn - does not condone it in any way shape or form.  Moreover, the screenplay frequently mocks the generational gap that exists between the hapless Maddie and the naive Percy, much to the former's detriment.  Many of the well earned laughs in NO HARD FEELINGS are in witnessing Maddie become increasingly frustrated with just how ungainly Percy is in just about any social situation.  This kid is the Fort Knox of virgins and won't be easily broke into.  

There are some compelling tonal shifts that NO HARD FEELINGS makes that help elevate it above the moniker of a low-rent and cheaply offensive sex comedy.  The characters at the core of this film are not vile or mean-spirited.  Dumb and lacking in foresight?  Sure.  But not evil.  Maddie is a distressed loner that's willing to essentially sell herself (in more ways than one) to get a rust bucket of a car to re-start her Uber career.  She takes to the Becker's plan with ravenous eagerness, but the more time she starts to spend with Percy and gets to know him, the more she starts to understand his inherent insecurities and where they come from.  She also has to come to grips with her own struggles in life and why clinging on to her past is hurting her from moving forward.  There's a predatory aggressiveness in her initial wooing attempts, yes, but that also leads to some of the film's funniest shock moments (like, for example, Percy rightfully macing her when he feels that he's being kidnapped).  When the pair share more meaningful dates together, Maddie realizes that Percy is interested in sex, but doesn't want to rush into it head-on.  He wants to get to know the woman he wants to have sex with first and he does not want to be pressured into any one-night stand.   

There's a noble message at play here in NO HARD FEELINGS that helps the film brush off pointed criticism that Maddie is a cruel exploiter of this vulnerable kid.  She discovers that she has to become good friends with Percy before progressing the relationship forward.  This all leads to some predictable plot machinations, to be sure, like the fact that you just know that Percy will somehow accidentally find out about his parent's cockamamie plan (and at just the wrong inopportune time) when he and Maddie were getting legitimately close as confidants.  This will further lead to sitcom-y scenes of confrontations, emotional barriers being propped up between Maddie and Percy, and the unavoidable moment when she confesses that she really does care about his feelings and well-being despite everything.  Also holding NO HARD FEELINGS back is the fact that for every joke and set-piece that lands well, there are two or three more than fall kind of limp and elicit groans.  Granted, the overarching obviousness of the story's trajectory does hurt this film too much, seeing as I was mostly invested in the overall journey with these two outcasts and how they grow to care for one another (despite the obvious elephant in the room).   

Lawrence has played comedic roles before (she won an Oscar for one in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), but nothing quite like Maddie before...and not with such a throw-caution-to-the-wind craziness.  She thrusts herself into the madcap nature of the film while also imbuing some of the film's more dramatic scenes with a real soul (like her blown away response to Percy giving the patrons of a restaurant an impromptu and really inspired cover of Hall and Oates' "Maneater").  She's matched remarkably well by the sensational Feldman, who perhaps has the tougher role playing a meek-minded mouse to Lawrence's hedonistic temptress.  Their offbeat and charming chemistry works miracles in NO HARD FEELINGS, so much so that if it had lesser actors (and a less adept hand behind the camera), then it might have easily been an insufferable watch.  The film's mind is in the gutter, but it's overall heart is in the right place, and the fact that we grow to respond to and like these weird characters is to its ultimate credit.  Plus, we get so very few R-rated studio comedies these days (and good ones with well known and acclaimed stars headlining them) that NO HARD FEELINGS becomes hard to push away at a distance.     

And, just to remind you again, Lawrence does things here that many of her fellow contemporary actresses would never have done for the sake of a laugh.  You just gotta give her that.

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