In a saner world, we would have already had a dozen Jennifer Lawrence comedies.
When aliens arrive they will surely go directly to IMDB to survey her filmography and wonder why one of Hollywood’s funniest and most naturally charismatic stars spent the first decade of her career in dystopias, action movies and whatever it is you call “Mother!”
As if to make up for lost time, Lawrence has in “No Hard Feelings” made the kind of R-rated teen comedy that has usually launched young actors. She plays a 32-year-old Montauk Uber driver who, desperate for money after her car is towed, is hired by the wealthy parents (Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti) of a timid and sheltered 19-year-old (newcomer Andrew Barth Feldman) to take his virginity before he heads off to Princeton.
We’ve, of course, had plenty of movies about teenagers trying to get laid for the first time. But “No Hard Feelings,” directed and co-written by Gene Stupnitsky, may be the first in which the teen in question has seemingly no desire to do so. He’s heterosexual, his parents are sure based on his browsing history.
But when Maddie Barker (Lawrence) turns up in a tight pink dress and heels at the Long Island animal shelter Percy (Feldman) works at, he responds mostly with prickliness and fear to her come-ons. The encounter ends with Percy spraying Maddie with mace.
Now, a 19-year-old rejecting Jennifer Lawrence like this is potentially a good way to sever any possible connection the audience has with one of your main characters. It’s like having him smack a child. Some things are unforgiveable. Maddie and Percy go on a series of increasingly intimate dates, and Percy vows to eventually “put out.”
The basis of “No Hard Feelings,” all around, is fairly untenable. Even less believable than Percy’s response to Maddie is her involvement in this scheme in the first place. In the movie’s opening scenes, her car is towed away by a ghosted ex-boyfriend (Ebon Moss-Bachrach of “The Bear”). In the uber-rich environs of Montauk, Maddie is trying to hold onto her house — the one she grew up in — while foreclosure lurks.
Maddie, forced to rollerblade to her bartending job, may be financially desperate. But, say what you will about the gig economy, it offers plenty of alternatives to earning money besides sleeping with teenagers who cringe when the restaurant doesn’t have Pepsi.
And yet, “No Hard Feelings” works better than it ought to. The preposterousness of the set-up is, naturally, part of the joke. Feldman, who here resembles the awkward Linguini of “Ratatouille” brought to life, brings more sensitivity to the role than you would expect, and flashes of good comic timing. So uncomfortable is he on their dates that at the sound of a break in a nearby game of pool, he jumps like a frightened cat. Skinny dipping in the ocean, he doggy paddles.
And while the role forces Lawrence into raunchy situations that could easily be said to be beneath her, “No Hard Feelings” gives her plenty of room to showcase her talent at upending traditional ideas of Hollywood glamour. At every moment, she delights in undercutting her own sexiness; it’s not every A-lister whose willing to film a beach brawl in the nude. Lawrence — Hollywood screenwriters take note — is more at home parodying the sex bomb than being one.
Yet while “No Hard Feelings” finally gives Lawrence (also an executive producer) a platform for some of the slapstick humor she’s so good at, it also feels like she’s been inserted into the framework of a quite male coming-of-age rom-com/fantasy. Big-screen comedies are dishearteningly few and far between these days, so it’s temping to applaud that “No Hard Feelings,” which opens in theaters Friday, simply exists.
Stupnitsky’s “Good Boys” cleverly shrunk a familiar genre — the house-party movie — into an R-rated romp for sixth-graders. But “No Hard Feelings” can feel stuck in adolescence. There are times here where you’re glad Lawrence is at least getting to act with adults. (Natalie Morales and Scott MacArthur are good as Maddie’s friends.) Lawrence could have easily carried a comedy that’s just on Maddie’s level, without the amateur-escort-for-a-kid storyline.
“No Hard Feelings” does, though, smartly dig into a generation gap in inverting the genre’s standard beats. Percy — and many of his classmates — are depicted as too tethered to their phones and too delicate to perceived offenses. In one scene, Maddie tears down the upstairs hall of a high-school party. Behind every door, there are kids not making out but calmly texting or playing video games — a portrait of Gen Z with plenty of basis in fact. Incredulous, Maddie exclaims: “Doesn’t anyone f—- anymore?”
“No Hard Feelings,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use. Running time: 103 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.