There’s a lot of pressure on any non-tentpole film these days. Every moderate-sized movie is looked to as the harbinger of a resurgence for the way “films used to be,” whatever that phrase means. The adult drama, sexual thriller, mid-tiered action film and even the R-rated comedy are always tentatively poised to make a comeback against the mega-franchises, as critics and cinephiles wait with bated breath to welcome back these subdivisions of movies. “No Hard Feelings” is not the resurrection of the raunchy comedies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it is an incredibly charming time at the theater. Buoyed by strong lead performances that transcend the comedy genre, director Gene Stupnitsky has crafted a fun outing with fully fleshed-out characters and genuinely funny sequences.
Living year-round in the summer town of Montauk, Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) isn’t as flush with money as the tourists who vacation there. This lack of funds has caused her to fall behind on her property taxes, which in turn has led to the town repossessing her car — her main source of income as an Uber driver. Just when she seems completely out of luck, Maddie finds an online ad posted by the Beckers (Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick) offering up a car in exchange for dating their 19-year-old son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). He’s about to go to Princeton in the fall, but his parents are worried that he may be too introverted and gentle to survive the college experience, so they hire Maddie in the hopes that it will propel him out of his shell and ready to take on the world. Of course, Percy is unaware of any of this, and Maddie must work hard to get close to the young man.
It’s really easy to dismiss performances in comedies. Many of them are pretty broad and aim to be larger than life. But even those subtler turns are often overlooked or ignored simply due to the genre in which they appear. Lawrence does an excellent job in the funnier aspects of her role, but they only soar because of how well she grounds the character in feeling like a human. When the inevitable “end of act two” disaster hits, the sadness that comes with it doesn’t feel forced but genuine and affecting. “No Hard Feelings” absolutely exists within the world of tropes and familiar storytelling beats, but it’s the individual notes that the cast and dialogue bring that help it rise above a feeling of cliché or well-trod territory. Director Stupnitsky (“Good Boys”) takes a patently crazy storyline ripe for misunderstandings and clashes of personality and finds the human thread woven through it to make the film fully engaging to the audience.
None of this would work if “No Hard Feelings” wasn’t also genuinely funny. This isn’t some dour character portrait of a forbidden love but rather a pseudo-romcom of two opposites learning to be together. Flexing muscles that she hasn’t really shown as much on screen before, Lawrence proves adept at fully embracing the bit and the manic ugliness of such a coarse woman. Meanwhile, Feldman does a ton of great, subtle character work through some terrifically awkward physicality and reacting to Lawrence’s bigger and broader counterpart. They are clearly opposing in most ways, but it’s also not hard to see how well they complement each other well, even amidst the ruse of it all. Their individual performances and impressive chemistry drive the movie and make “No Hard Feelings” far more entertaining than it would be with other actors at the helm.
As previously mentioned, the film adheres to some expected formulas and follows the usual story beats. While it never feels slavishly attached to those tropes, it’s still very much made in a familiar mold. It’s a proven, successful storytelling method, and it mostly works here as well, even if there are times when it becomes forced. The beginning of the third act feels particularly rushed. It’s as if the filmmakers were worried that audiences would be too bummed out if the breakup lasted longer than seven minutes. Still, it rights itself (and gets right back on those narrative rails) in time to deliver a strong ending. That adherence to formula provides some level of comfort that folks can derive from comedies, but it can also hobble the proceedings a bit more than intended.
“No Hard Feelings” is unlikely to be the resurgence of the R-rated comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun time at the movies. There’s still plenty of swearing, sex talk, nudity, relationship discussions and even some Hall & Oates. The film has a lot going for it, though it would be better suited if Stupnitsky was confident enough to not rely on certain genre tropes as often as he does. Still, for those looking for 103 minutes of strong (but not great) comedy, “No Hard Feelings” absolutely fits the bill.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti, Natalie Morales, Scott MacArthur, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Director: Gene Stupnitsky