Film reviews and more since 2009

No Hard Feelings (2023) review

Dir. Gene Stupnitsky

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

In a landscape where the raunchy, theatrical comedy is going the way of the BlackBerry phone, writer-director Gene Stupnitsky has established himself as a name worth knowing. The Ukrainian director unleashed a fury of laughs with his film Good Boys in 2019, revolving around a trio of foul-mouthed preteens trying to go to a party thrown by the popular kids.

Stupnitsky — who wrote that film with his longtime collaborator Lee Eisenberg, and also cowrote No Hard Feelings — is now two-for-two when he pulls double-duty, and infuses what could be another run-of-the-mill, juvenile sex comedy with character development, mostly likable types, and a premise that navigates its own ickiness rather maturely.

No Hard Feelings centers around Jennifer Lawrence’s Maddie, a 32-year-old, directionless Uber driver living in Montauk, the same touristy seaside village where she was born. Her habits are unenviable. The film opens with her car getting repossessed as she’s already at risk of losing her childhood home following the death of her mother, and her dating life consists of ghosting men after a couple of months. Now, she’s without a car, and thus, a source of income.

Enter Laird (Matthew Broderick with a flow of gray hair) and Allison (Lauren Benanti), a wealthy couple with a summer home in Montauk and an anti-social, awkward 19-year-old son named Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). Maddie sees their unusual used car listing posted, which states they’re looking for a woman in her early-to-mid-20s who can go on dates with Percy and take his virginity — in exchange for a Buick Regal. This sort of short-term commitment is already well-charted territory for Maddie, but now there’s a car as a reward? Sold.

See, Percy’s folks aren’t just helicopter parents; they’re lawnmower parents. They love “mowing down” obstacles that get in their son’s way, and they’ve done such a great job that Percy is barely an individual. His parents track his every move, have the passcode to his phone, and have made his entire life one giant, cushy “safe-space.” When a woman as attractive as Maddie suddenly enters his life, of course he doesn’t pick up on sexual innuendos nor her obvious attempts at flirting with him. In time, however, the two reveal themselves to one another, and Maddie goes from wondering if the Buick is even worth to wondering how she could possibly ghost someone as inherently sweet as Percy.

It’s true that No Hard Feelings probably wouldn’t get a release — let alone greenlit — if the roles were reversed and a 32-year-old man was hired by the parents of a 19-year-old girl for no other purpose than to bang their daughter. Such pervasive double-standards exist in our society, and the fact that a film like this can be considered a sex comedy is really nothing new. It would be more offensive if the film didn’t at least have some critiques of its own about this dynamic. Maddie is chastised by her friends (Scott MacArthur and Natalie Morales) about her decision to go along with Percy’s parents’ plan, and she’s called a loser or some variation of the term so much that it’s a surprise she hasn’t gone on to live a life like Percy. The film makes very clear she’s not a laudable heroine.

However, she is occasionally likable, and it takes very little time for her to have Percy’s best interest in mind (sometime after she narrowly gets them both killed by an oncoming train, with Percy on the hood of the car). A lion’s weight of making this character anything but intolerable is a credit to Lawrence’s performance. More than just her sex appeal shines here. She’s both physical and nuanced in her comedy, whether she’s trying to give Percy a lap-dance or insult some incoming Princeton students with her acidic clapbacks.

Andrew Barth Feldman — who looks a bit like Nat Wolff and NFL quarterback Mike White morphed into one person — turns in a performance akin to Jay Baruchel’s in She’s Out of My League. At first, Percy is incompetently stiff and geeky, but he soon grows more confident in his abilities and aware of his own agency. Meanwhile, Lawrence’s Maddie evolves from being impulsive to more calculated and empathetic. Consider the premise wildly unrealistic if you must, but Stupnitsky adopts the favorable breeziness of a romantic comedy, and it’s that tone, infused with many sex jokes, that makes the film likable.

If only the third act had some room to breathe. Over the course of No Hard Feelings, I got the impression that certain scenes were planned to go on for far longer than they did. The most apparent is when Maddie responds to a group of teens stealing her clothes when her and Percy decide to go skinny-dipping. Forget the fact that a full-frontal Jennifer Lawrence kicks the crap out of the punks. I was more jarred by the hard-cut that shows Maddie back in the water seconds after the fight concludes.

This problem is most evident in the third act, which feels like it was hacked to bits in post-production. Three major events happen over the course of a three-scene, 30-second montage, and in the moments before, we are led to believe that Maddie is still committed to the life has set up for herself. It’s true, I might be the first one to squawk had No Hard Feelings exceeded or approached the two-hour mark, but after spending 90-minutes with these characters, further closure on some of Maddie’s big life decisions would’ve at least made the story itself feel more complete.

Editing issues aside, Stupnitsky and John Phillips still manage to stick the landing, and No Hard Feelings emerges as the first truly funny and entertaining sex comedy in a blue moon. While Jennifer Lawrence has established herself as a true A-list actress, it’s a joy to watch her in a looser, more uninhibited role that manages to give her character adequate depth. By the end, you feel as if both Maddie and Percy have emerged from this situation as better people, and that’s among the most you can ask from a premise that initially made you a little uneasy.

NOTE: No Hard Feelings is now playing exclusively in theaters.

OTHER FILMS BY GENE STUPNITSKY:
My review of Good Boys (2019)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti, Scott MacArthur, Natalie Morales, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Hasan Minhaj, and Kyle Mooney. Directed by: Gene Stupnitsky.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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