Jennifer Lawrence’s return to theatres proves a welcome, raunchy reminder of how much she was missed.
As big tent blockbusters like superhero movies and other franchise fare battle it out for screens and box office returns, the traditional mid-budget comedy has become increasingly rare. With adult comedies squeezed off the schedule, there are far fewer opportunities for performers who don’t want to don a cape or end up described as “the live-action version” of a cartoon. That’s part of what makes Gene Stupnitsky’s No Hard Feelings such a breath of fresh air.
This delightful new movie provides an exhilarating showcase for star Jennifer Lawrence’s physical comedy talents without losing sight of the story’s emotional stakes. Despite being one of the raunchiest mainstream movies in recent memories, No Hard Feelings is warm and even gentle in its approach to its sex farce subject matter.
Lawrence, mostly absent from the big screen since 2019, returns with a bang as protagonist Maddie Barker, a broke Montauk native. She’s directionless at thirty-two years old and facing down unpaid property taxes that threaten her claim on the home she inherited from her late mother. Worse, her primary source of income—a rideshare driver resentfully ferrying rich tourists around her hometown—becomes impossible when her car is seized for those back taxes.
Desperate, she turns to Craigslist to find a new car. She answers an ad posted by two wealthy helicopter parents (Broadway’s Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick). They promise her a used Buick if she sleeps with their awkward nineteen-year-old son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman, best known for playing the titular character in Dear Evan Hansen on stage) before he heads off to Princeton. Confident, Maddie sets out to seduce the teen without revealing his parents’ involvement. However, she finds herself in over her head almost immediately when her provocations fail to win over Percy.
Stupnitsky, who previously directed Good Boys and co-created Freevee’s hit show Jury Duty, is clearly no stranger to character-driven humor. He wisely keeps the focus tightly on Maddie and Percy, sparely using supporting characters like Maddie’s jilted past lovers and fellow Montauk townies as he zeroes in on their charmingly unbalanced dynamic. Percy is as meek and anxious as Maddie is brazen and sloppy. Even though it’s immediately apparent that this is not a romantic relationship we’re supposed to be rooting for, Lawrence and Feldman have magnetic onscreen chemistry.
Their friendship grows naturally, in spite of Maddie’s aggressive romantic advances. Soon, they begin to bolster each others’ confidence just by being themselves. It feels easy to root for Maddie, even as she dives headfirst into murky moral gray areas. Lawrence walks a narrow line skillfully, balancing Maddie’s cruder exploits with small, flinching physical gestures, hinting at isolation and loneliness.
Lawrence more than proves her movie star credentials in an array of memorable set pieces that show off her skills with physical comedy. Whether jerkily scooting a couch across a room with her butt or clinging to the hood of a car after being set on fire, Lawrence rises to the occasion. Perpetually stewing in a deep discontent, Maddie can’t even engage in seduction without letting it come through. The results are hilarious. In perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence, she fights a group of teens while stark naked after skinny dipping. It’s a shocking but outrageously funny scene that reminds us Lawrence didn’t leave her combat skills behind in The Hunger Games franchise that launched her to fame.
Lawrence more than proves her movie star credentials in an array of memorable set pieces that show off her skills with physical comedy.
Though a relative newcomer in comparison, Feldman nimbly holds his own opposite Lawrence. He contrasts her broader comedy with a skittish, halting physicality that also delivers some big laughs. Percy is so timid that he reacts to the sound of a pool table break as if it were gunfire. He’s the starry-eyed naïf to Maddie’s hardened cynic, a refreshing variation on the standard male/female dynamic in rom-coms. At arguably his most charming, he shows off his Broadway credentials with a heartfelt piano rendition of Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” It proves surprisingly touching in the context of the film.
Stupnitsky and cinematographer Eigil Bryld (In Bruges, Deep Water) also make interesting visual choices highlighting the film’s clever humor. They often frame Maddie like a horror movie monster, in the corner of a frame and slightly out of focus, as jolting musical cues land. This is particularly in the first act, as she stalks Percy. Before fighting the teenagers who stole her clothes, she emerges from the dark sea expressionlessly, looking not unlike an It Follows character. Later, she even bursts through the panel of a door like The Shining’s Jack Torrance. In contrast, as the emotional intimacy between Maddie and Percy deepens, we spend more and more time in tight close-ups. It’s as if the entire world is narrowing down to their unexpected connection.
Of course, the most important thing a comedy movie can have is actual jokes. Ideally, good ones. Happily, No Hard Feelings doesn’t pull its punches here. Instead of leaning on repeated gags or winking “that happened” quips, this film goes for the jugular, letting its characters openly insult and roast each other. Nothing is off the table, including cutting jokes about sex crimes. Some drew gasps as well as laughter at this critic’s screening. Still, Stupnitsky, who co-wrote No Hard Feelings with Dirty Grandpa screenwriter John Phillips, avoids the impulse to punch down. His affection for these characters shines through even in their nastiest moments.
No Hard Feelings is everything a modern sex comedy should be, combining laugh-out-loud hilarity with sensitive character dynamics. The one hundred- and three-minute runtime flew by in a giddy blur. It’s quite lucky physical comedy is so hard to describe, as it ensures the movie’s best gags are impossible to spoil. Seeing a film driven by adult relationships instead of magic McGuffin makes for a welcome change. No Hard Feelings will leave audiences rightfully excited about the return of J-Law. Hopefully, it also heralds the return of the much-needed mid-budget movie.
No Hard Feelings flirts with theatres in ways both raunchy and awkward starting June 23.