Jennifer Lawrence Needed a Better Movie Than ‘No Hard Feelings’ for Her Rom-Com Comeback

The comedy wants to be both un-PC and woke, and the result is wishy washy.

Jennifer Lawrence Needed a Better Movie Than ‘No Hard Feelings’ for Her Rom-Com Comeback
Image:Sony Pictures Releasing

One of the first things 32-year-old No Hard Feelings’ Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) says to a pair of parents who are contemplating hiring her to date their nerdy, isolated 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) is, “I am not a sex worker. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Of course, this assertion seems to be at odds with the job she’s applying for. The convolution only intensifies when she asks whether Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti) want her to date Percy or date Percy. Laird’s guidance to “date him hard” points her in the direction of coercing Percy’s virginity away from him in addition to coaxing him out of his shell. She gets right to work.

And so, in the words of Showgirls’ Cristal Connors, “You are a whore, darlin’… We all are. We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they want to see!” That Maddie is getting involved in this charade is a product of the class divide she’s seen crawling over her lifelong home of Montauk, New York. She’s hard up for cash and her car just got repossessed, a tough break for an Uber driver. The Percy gig will yield her a used Buick, which she scoffs at briefly and then resumes pining for. She’s also a bartender with ire pointed at her well-heeled, multi-home-owning customers. As she points out to her boss after giving a customer attitude, “These people are the reason I’m losing my house!” She also has a habit of sleeping with guys and losing interest, as is indicated in an early scene when tow truck driver Gary (The Bear’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach) refuses to go easy on her because of the resentment he carries. He caught feelings; she considered him a fling.

No Hard Feelings (directed and-cowritten by Gene Stupnitsky, who also wrote Bad Teacher and wrote/directed Good Boys) has a lot going for it: a high concept that’s fit for an ‘80s sex comedy, the return of Jennifer Lawrence to the genre that made her a star and won her an Oscar, copious usage of Hall & Oates’ 1982 hit “Maneater.” But at times, it seems to be self-consciously un-PC. For example, there are jokes about incest. (Discussing Percy’s parents’ job listing on Craigslist, Maddie’s friend Jim jokes, “Have you seen these helicopter parents? They’ll do anything for their kids. I’m surprised they’re not gonna fuck him themselves.”) Hasan Minhaj plays the bit part of real estate agent Doug, whom Maddie attended high school with and “had sex with our Spanish teacher.” He ended up marrying her (she even went to jail, just like Mary Kay Letourneau). I got the sense that No Hard Feelings wants to be both brutal and sensitive, like if The Hangover were, well, woke. At a party for outgoing Princeton freshman, Maddie, whose age is repeatedly mocked (“Whose mom is that?” asks one kid), tells two guys that they should fuck each other, and when one asks if that’s an insult, she says, “It sure is, professor!” Then they call her on her framing of gay sex as being insulting, and she backpedals, stammering, “It was a joke. I’m not…I’ve been with girls. I’m not homophobic.” It’s like the movie is regularly stepping in shit for effect, and then making a display of its self-cleansing. I suppose this is trying to get at the tension between traditional so-wrong-it’s-right comedy and modern sensitivities, but overall the effect is wishy-washy.

This is abundantly clear in the film’s handling of its premise, in which Maddie is hired to coerce Percy, whose reluctance is established and reiterated several times. To pick him up, she dons a low-cut dress and approaches him at his job at an animal shelter, asking, “Can I pet your wiener?” (He’s holding a dachshund.) She attempts to seduce him in the office. Later she manipulates him into skinny dipping by pouting about his apparent lack of attraction to her, and she performs a lapdance that makes him break out into hives. The movie makes light of coercion, but ultimately delivers agency to Percy, who is effectively demisexual (or having a demisexual moment). Percy’s declaration that he won’t have sex with someone he doesn’t know makes Maddie recalibrate her strategy, and a sex com becomes more of a rom-com, albeit one that features Lawrence in a full frontal fight scene—she hits back at asshole kids on the beach who try to steal her and Percy’s clothes as they skinny dip—and Percy hanging off the hood of her car nude while she evades the police. By the end of the movie, she’ll get her own hanging-off-the-hood scene, though hers is clothed.

The attempts at madcap energy feel, like virtually everything in No Hard Feelings, forced. Maddie is, on one hand, a klutz and a ditz (she greets Percy’s parents by walking up the stairs to their house in rollerblades in an extended bit that starts unfunny and remains that way), but on the other hand, she’s sharp enough to talk her way into the job, when it was advertised for someone much younger, by pointing out that her experience is actually an asset. Her machinations flow from there. She’s chaotic neutral. Her self-absorption would have her leaning evil if it weren’t for the larger social factors that oppress her—she has to be selfish if she just wants to get by. At least that goes for most situations. Maddie’s big arc involves learning that she’s been inconsiderate with people’s feelings. The movie comes this close to slut-shaming her and suggesting that she needs to grow up and stop sleeping around, finally landing on allowing her to see that the disgruntled men from her past kind of have a point, even when making it involves insulting her.

For all of Maddie’s moxie and apparent sex-positivity, the one sex scene she gets involves no kissing, no foreplay, and premature ejaculation. She seems fine with it—it’s part of the gig, after all. It’s a metaphor for the way Jennifer Lawrence approaches this role. She’s game. You can see how it might have looked good on paper. But there’s something fundamentally soulless about her turn here, as she goes through the motions to make a buck.

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