The female of the species is definitely more deadly than the male in director Gene Stupnitsky’s No Hard Feelings, a film which gives us Jennifer Lawrence as a resilient, sometimes violent femme, whose desperation leads to good old-fashioned emotional maturation. A follow-up to Stupnitsky’s equally licentious Good Boys (2019), an R-rated comedy featuring foul-mouthed preadolescents, his latest shares a lot in common with his 2011-penned Bad Teacher, another film about a beautiful woman behaving badly and ultimately learning she’s been her own worst enemy thanks to limited ambitions.
Pairing up with Dirty Grandpa (2016) scribe John Phillips, this story feels like a more novel approach to the hoary teen rom-com take on Pygmalion, where elitist tendencies desire the sexual or desirable transformation of some social clodhopper in need of a makeover. With Lawrence at the helm of this narrative, Stupnitsky succeeds with almost two-thirds of an incendiary and entertaining gut-buster before a derivative chokehold cuts off the laughing gas.
Although this is more than can be hoped for from most R-rated “original” comedic endeavors released by the current studio system, it’s ultimately a bit of a halting disappointment with a predictable finale, a fate heightened by a lead performance that is funny, subversive, and more poignant than the narrative deserves.
As her car is repossessed, part-time Uber driver and bartender Maddie Barker (Lawrence) finds herself in danger of losing the house her mother left her in Montauk, unable to pay her mounting property taxes. Scrambling to find a way to satisfy the lien against her home, she stumbles upon an ad to be a secret escort for high school graduate Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), whose wealthy parents (Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti) fear will fail at Princeton unless he experiences some vices that are a right of passage prior to college. The reward for the sexual awakening of their son is a used Buick, a commodity Maddie desperately needs to save her house. Though she’s several years older than the age range they’re looking for, Maddie convinces them her maturity makes her the ideal candidate. Tackling the mission with a sense of intensity that initially frightens Percy, their interactions eventually lead them to challenge one another in surprising ways.
The most interesting observation of No Hard Feelings is the examination of Maddie as a millennial thrust into the bosom of Gen Z interests and anxieties —the film lightly pokes fun at the younger generation’s tendency to use their social media-obsessed realities as a superficial way to claim a footing on the plateaus of the moral high ground. But underneath these contemporary fixtures, it’s really recycling a formula that makes its way through every generation’s psyche. Patrick Dempsey bought popularity from the cheerleading captain in Can’t Buy Me Love (1987), only to learn his new-found power is superficial, and tenuously maintained. In 1999’s She’s All That, Rachael Leigh Cook finds herself transformed into a high school beauty queen all thanks to a cruel dare. But does her “creator” really love her?
Stupnitsky’s update leads its ignorant mark to utter the exact same sentiments as all the predecessors: “Was any of it real?” It’s an unfortunate dip into basic tendencies because the film’s mad dash for some semblance of greater emotional glory also feels a bit cheaply attenuated. We can rightly predict where all the pieces will fall in place (especially after a fun repeat reference to Hall & Oates’ classic track ”Maneater”), and these moments have a tendency to rob the film’s supporting players of their merits. This includes Broderick and Benanti, who are at least fittingly ambivalent in their snobby handling of Maddie, but also Natalie Morales as her bestie Sara, who has one of the most underwhelming reactions to a life-changing surprise ever captured on film.
But what No Hard Feelings does have is a crackerjack Jennifer Lawrence, who manages to be likable even when her dirty deeds are done dirt cheap. Once hired for the job, she prowls across the frame like a seasoned con artist, her initial tight pink dress reminiscent of Jennifer Love Hewitt in the underrated 2001 comedy Heartbreakers. Her initial aggressiveness has all the subtlety of an anaconda strangling a foal, and this allows for some formidable hilarity with Feldman’s sheltered rich kid. A skinny-dipping sequence results in some tremendously comic beats between them, and delivers the film’s most playful, bawdiest moment.
Where the storytelling gets a bit murky is when Percy’s eventual privilege is revealed through a nasty exchange allowing Maddie to hear some hard truths about what’s kept her doggedly stymied in Montauk. But we unfortunately never get a moment to feel Percy or his parents are confronted with examining their own limitations, and thus, the film’s hollow third act feels like it’s merely going through the motions. What No Hard Feelings leaves us hungering for is a continuation of Maddie’s interiority. One of Lawrence’s most interesting characters, her vibrancy blazes beyond the film’s limitations.