The mortal dread that often bubbles up when a new big-name comedy hits big screens, can often overshadow the excitement of that subgenre still showing its longevity. No matter how corny or clever the marketing is, it’s not enough to fully eliminate the concern of a total misfire, leaning so heavily on what it’s promoting, versus what it’s not. Whenever a studio can subvert its own ploy and capture the viewer into something more profound. That is exactly what Sony’s marketing department did for director Gene Stupnitsky (Good Boys) and his newest film, No Hard Feelings. The red band trailers do set the expectation of a wild, unpredictable romp, encapsulating only one side of this story. Thankfully, redeemingly, there’s a far more affirming idea of heart over mind, life goals over immediate desires, verbal interaction versus endless physical pratfalls. And all with the right person in the leading part, furthering their range with poise and spoken viscerality.
Stupnitsky, with co-writer John Phillips (Dirty Grandpa), establish their uncoiling tale in an eye-catching, almost innocuous setting. It’s summertime in the Hamptons, tourist season for a group of hardy locals eager to capitalize on that flush of income. Among them is 30-something Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence), a longtime resident and holdout of persistent change, trying to hold on to her mother’s house one month at a time. However, even with her steady revenue working as a bartender and Lyft driver, it’s difficult to stay afloat. We first see her trying to steal back her Toyota from a vengeful tow truck driver whom she ghosted in a romantic guise. It’s his revenge, plus her bills are piling up.
Out of innate desperation, a mode she’s been in for the longest time, Maddie takes up a Craigslist offer made by a pair of wealthy parents, Laird and Allison (Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti). They entrust Maddie to help break their introverted, Princeton-bound son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) out of his shell, gain the confidence he needs to make friends, be outgoing and courting before the social wave eats him alive. Maddie agrees to be Percy’s “girlfriend,” with the two learning not just how to be a proper partner, but also a good friend as we learn some hidden secrets and frustrations between the two.
It’s never just about the crudity in Stupnitsky’s playbook, nor is it overtly about the need for a romantic connection, as this duo couldn’t be further distanced on an intimate wavelength. Instead, they’re written more with a confidants’ perspective in mind. Newfound friends discovering mutual interests, mutual life concerns. For one reason or another, they’re afraid of leaving, fearful of growing up, and of looking past what’s considered “adulting,” at face value. Yes, the script doesn’t shy away from the scrutiny within substantial age differences, even pulling in Percy’s “male nanny” Jody (Kyle Mooney) to prove a point on quick judgment.
And there’s the voice of reason knocking at her door at multiple avenues, furthering her frustration. If it’s not the presence of past exes who’ve become organized, or her married-and-expecting coworkers Sara (a crackerjack Natalie Morales) and Jim (Scott MacArthur) chiming in, it’s often Percy’s parents, whom Broderick and Benanti portray with a sardonic edge. All those apprehensions never dwell or hang for too long, with every beat – dramatic, comical, or iniquitous – lingering on for the right amount of time. And often, branching to the next with a gentle flow.
Lawrence and Feldman are there for it all, drilled in and ready to capture the mood, and any occasional shifts with that same finite grace. To go from the former initiating an assertive scrum on a beach while nude, to the latter breaking down the hidden metaphors in Hall and Oates’ hit song “Maneater,” while performing it on piano in the key of regret, and do so with precise balance, that really takes courage. To allow that to leap off the page like it does is something else altogether. Feldman proves his sticking post as a clever screen sidekick, before breaking out that bracket to challenge Lawrence for co-lead.
For the first half, anyway, this is her film. I knew very well for her to take on any light comedy after years of gritty action and drama roles would be a welcome change of pace. Never would I have guessed how apt her work ethic would apply to a dense, hard-R comedy, and make it fly. Not since her time on TV’s The Bill Engvall Show has she been able to flex those muscles, so it was well overdue. She was the selling point, the sense of heart was what kept me engaged, and I was absolutely surprised through the end. That, and some broad needle drops anchored together by Mychael Danna’s dulcet score.
If there were any serious mistakes in this romp, they’re all in a chunky third act where the key events take hold, and the lie unravels with little breathing room. Not enough to ruin the mood, but suddenly there’s multiple moving parts between Maddie and Percy to keep track of as their relationship grows more complex. I can commend the writer/director for his idea of tension mirroring what would be a standard human response. But from a written perspective, it still makes fair economic sense to spread out one’s eggs evenly instead of dropping all of them in one move. I can’t complain too much, knowing it leads to one of the film’s most complete moments, an awkward lunch between Percy, Maddie, and the folks.
I could say there were quite a few points in Stupnitsky’s treatment that felt very whole, genial, brassy, and yet delightful. Something sorely absent in many R-rated comedies, but always welcome to shake up the formula. A film like No Hard Feelings can rearrange the table for what comes after it. And in a summer slate filled with a healthy mix of adult comedies on the calendar, this is the legit standout. Through unfounded energy and pluck from its cast, and even less expected sympathy within its storyline, its place is found as a rarity in the genre. One to warm the heart, as much as tickle the funny bone. Here’s to that not being a rude one-off. (B+; 3.5/5)
No Hard Feelings opens June 23, early showtimes start 4PM June 22; rated R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity, and brief drug use; 103 minutes.