Are there movie stars anymore? I don’t mean recognizable faces or performers – I mean true blue stars that can carry a movie on sheer charisma alone. We once had an entire system devised around these titans of the screen, capable of leading a thriller, drama, or comedy with ease. Now? There’s Tom Cruise and maybe Sandra Bullock – everyone else, from The Rock to Channing Tatum has fallen flat.
So No Hard Feelings, a throwback to the early-aughts gross-out raunchy comedy (and maybe a bit of the 80s, too), proves to be a perfect litmus test: is Jennifer Lawrence, fresh on a comeback after firing a talent agency that was hiding her, actually the movie star she seemed to be in the early 2010s? The answer, it seems, is “yeah, kinda.” For while your mileage may vary with these kinds of films and the repetitiveness of the jokes, No Hard Feelings is entertaining throughout, thanks to Lawrence’s keen, gung-ho performance.
Maddie (Lawrence) has lived in Montauk, New York all her life. A consummate party girl, she, like the rest of the natives, has learned to harbor a resentment for the billionaires who vacation there every summer, treat them like dirt, and drive up the housing prices. Facing bankruptcy when her car is repossessed right before Uber season begins, Maddie decides to accept an unusual Craigslist ad written by rich helicopter parents Allison (Laura Benanti) and Laird (Matthew Broderick), who are concerned for their son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman).
You see, despite deep compassion and intellect, he’s also aggressively socially awkward – a byproduct of bullying and his parents’ smothering nature – and will be leaving for Princeton in the fall completely unprepared for the world socially. Allison and Laird hire Maddie to date their son for the summer (both “date” as in go on dates with him and “date” as in “date his brains out”). And as Maddie undertakes her surprisingly difficult mission to help the nineteen-year-old become a man, she ends up learning about herself in the process.
No Hard Feelings offers audiences exactly what one would expect from a raunchy comedy in the vein of the Frat Pack’s heyday – for better or worse. There’s bawdy jokes based on ideas of sexuality and the grossness of the human body. It’s all centered around an iffy premise (although writer/director Gene Stupnitsky) at least addresses and the issues with the concept so as to counteract any perceived creepiness). And generational divides play a big role in the humor (want to feel old? The generational divide here is Millennial vs. Zoomer).
The film also shares all the fundamental characteristics of the genre, which also serves as its greatest flaw. The reason so many of those early-aughts comedies had short shelf lives or failed to capitalize on decent concepts was an emphasis on improvisation over the written word. Actors, caught up in the joy of shooting their fun movie, would try to change up lines and come up with the “funniest,” crassest joke they could think of. Editors then have to hack these jokes to bits just to make it make sense – usually with seventeen cuts per second to do an obvious bit that overstays its welcome. No Hard Feelings is no exception, with several clunky jokes overestimating an audiences’ desire to see an Oscar-winning actress randomly catch fire for a full two minutes.
However, also like those sex comedies of old, when this film is on, my God is it on. And that’s in no small part thanks to Lawrence’s performance. The highly awarded actress is here to prove once and for all that she’s a star, and that she can do it all. And given her performance here, one could hardly blame her. Lawrence is clearly a star, commanding every scene she’s in with the same energy as all of the genre’s greats.
Lawrence has always been gifted at verbal sparring, but here she successfully showcases a surprising knack for physical comedy. She throws herself into each and every joke, whether she’s getting punched in the throat, thrown from a car hood, or, in one memorable scene, fist-fighting some drunk college students completely naked. Of course, her jokes still land – she callously insults 19-year-olds with the same passion and emotion she once gave Tiffany Maxwell or Katniss Everdeen.
Of course, it certainly helps the starlet that she has a game scene partner hungry to prove himself in the industry. Feldman is a strong find in the role of awkward Percy, totally committed physically, verbally, and emotionally – he knows better than to waste his big break. The 21-year-old Broadway veteran uses his body with care – he flails when easily spooked and he uses his diminutive size to sit on Jennifer Lawrence’s lap during a failed seduction.
He can even make the dumbest jokes work – one of the film’s funniest throwaway lines involves his sad pronunciation of the word “vermouth.” Yet just when you think that the young actor is simply another comedic nerd destined to be the butt of every joke (it took years for Michael Cera to break that label), Feldman goes and provides the film’s most earnest moment. It involves an emotional performance of the song “Maneater” by Hall and Oats, and Feldman’s Broadway chops believably provide an emotional catharsis for both of the film’s leads, all due to the strength of his voice.
The rest of the supporting cast is mostly game to the film’s admittedly weak machinations. No one else really has a chance to shine, as so much of the material solely focuses on Maddie and Percy. Perhaps the best supporting performances come from Benanti and Broderick, and not just because they have the second-most screentime. The duo truly embodies the New Age-adjacent helicopter parents that would create someone like Percy, and they relish in each faux-sensitive, overly protective bit of jibberish (Broderick in particular is outstanding).
Also great is Natalie Morales; surely the renowned character actress and director deserved a larger role than the pregnant friend who pops up occasionally to provide advice, but she makes the most of it. Ebon Moss-Bachrach from The Bear has a blast playing a put-upon ex of Maddie’s, and it never hurts when he shows up in a film. Ditto Kyle Mooney, the great SNL underdog, whose cameo here is too good to spoil. The only performance that doesn’t fully work is Hasan Minhaj – while a terrific comedian, Minhaj’s material here is dated and boring. It’s a shame the film didn’t rise to meet his talents.
No Hard Feelings is, like its protagonist, a messy, incomplete, yet utterly enjoyable film. Despite misgivings in the casting and a portion of the jokes (not to mention how they’re edited), the film is ultimately too entertaining to slag on too much. Its leads are entertaining, the story intriguing enough, and the jokes will mostly make you laugh. It’s mindless entertainment for two hours, a reason to get out of the house and share some laughs with strangers. Ultimately, that’s why we love movies
No Hard Feelings is now playing in theaters