Like most funny stories, No Hard Feelings seems like a bad idea at first. It’s a movie in which Jennifer Lawrence, in her first lead role in a full-on comedy, spends approximately 103 minutes trying to seduce a socially awkward 19-year-old for financial gain. It’s also wildly funny, and a great reminder of how good J-Law is at lighting up a screen.
Lawrence plays Maddie Barker, a woman who has grown up in Montauk her whole life and is trying to stay there. Struggling to pay property taxes on the home she inherited from her late mother, Maddie gets by on odd jobs — and then loses her car for not making payments on it, too. No car means no Uber driving and no tourist money for bills. But Maddie has found an incredibly unconventional way of scoring new wheels: a pair of wealthy parents willing to give a car to a nice girl who will sleep with their shut-in son before he goes to college.
No Hard Feelings has a premise that, on paper, skirts the line of good taste, but in practice is too sweet to ever really be transgressive or overly raunchy. Maddie is a hot mess who happily burns bridges and doesn’t care much for social niceties; hooking up with a 19-year-old is no big deal to her. Unfortunately, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), said teenager, is too nervous and sweet to accept any of Maddie’s advances, and she has to win him over — because Percy cannot know that his parents arranged the whole thing.
Sex farce gives way to a story of unlikely friendship as Maddie tries to seduce a boy too scared of everything to even register he’s being hit on. She has to compete in a decathlon of humiliation — getting maced, beating the crap out of some thieves while nude, and getting her ass lit on fire while she clings to the hood of a car, among other things — to convince Percy to open up sexually. But No Hard Feelings is actually a story about both Percy and Maddie needing to open up emotionally, to move forward out of the ruts they are each unwilling to acknowledge they are in.
Mostly, No Hard Feelings is a reminder that Lawrence — an actor who exploded in popularity thanks to the strength of unforgettable dramatic roles in films like Winter’s Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, and the Hunger Games series — is extremely funny. Whether it’s the physical comedy of Maddie’s over-the-top come-ons, her quippy and sweary put-downs directed toward ex-boyfriends and other teenagers, or her barely simmering rage at the rich vacationers that flood her hometown every year, Lawrence is funny in several registers, and the entire movie is held together by her sheer charisma.
That’s not to say that the rest of the film is dull. Feldman holds his own in the straight man role, an excellent foil to Lawrence’s antics and the doe-eyed center for the rest of the cast to orbit around, from his overbearing parents (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) to his still-present nanny (Kyle Mooney), all fussing over a young man who doesn’t want to be fussed over but can’t figure out how to face the world on his own.
And yet Lawrence is the most compelling argument for No Hard Feelings. While the film favors sweetness over raunch in a way that makes for a messy third act, Lawrence’s performance holds it all together with real heart. As Maddie, she isn’t interested in sanding off a difficult character’s rough edges, but instead shows how that character comes to understand why they are difficult, and maybe even accepts it.
The early 2020s have been a spare time for Jennifer Lawrence compared to her previous output, with No Hard Feelings just her third film in the last four years. It’s also been a light time for big, R-rated studio comedies, a genre that has struggled to find the kind of success horror movies have had in standing out amid the endless wave of franchise cinema. It doesn’t have to be, though. Sometimes, for a good time, all you need is a great actor and a story that seems like a real bad idea.