Had Katniss Everdeen and the “X-Men” series never gotten in the way — or, had we still lived in an era when superheroes or fantasy franchises were not seen as status symbols on the resume of a young superstar — Jennifer Lawrence would have already starred in numerous rom-coms by now, à la the Julia Roberts of the 90s. Especially after winning the Oscar for one a decade ago, with David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
But better late than never says Gene Stupnitsky’s “No Hard Feelings,” a genuinely witty and somewhat clumsy romantic comedy (well, sort of), that feels more like an honest-to-god movie than many of the rushed and straight-to-streaming examples of the genre we’ve seen in the recent years.
Written by Stupnitsky (of the heartily funny “Good Boys”) and John Phillips, this light pick-me-up of a flick is as eager to please as Lawrence is to show off her luminous physical comedy skills, elevated by the star’s fiery comic timing and effortless drollness. What an unpredictably great next move for our big-screen sweetheart (also a producer here), to uplift the dying breed of the mid-budget, R-rated studio comedy, only a year after splendidly returning to her indie roots with the exquisite character study, “Causeway”?
Lawrence plays Maddie Barker in her latest, a free-spirited Montauk local who feistily breaks male hearts and routinely ghosts romantic interests, “Runaway Bride”-style. (It feels like no accident that “No Hard Feelings” prominently features Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” in its soundtrack, like the aforesaid Richard Gere-Julia Roberts romance.) Though it’s anything but smooth-sailing for Maddie in her oceanside town.
About to be priced out of her modest, inherited home on the East End of Long Island with no one but the rich Hamptons folk and summer crowds littering its pristine beaches to blame, Maddie can’t pay her skyrocketing property taxes. The worst arrives when she loses her car, her bread and butter as an Uber driver to supplement her bartending gig, especially during the lucrative summer months. So what’s Maddie to do, if not go to extreme lengths to save the life she’s worked hard to preserve?
Enter Percy (a terrific and believably pure-hearted Andrew Barth Feldman), a wealthy teen on his way to Princeton for college. Or rather, enter his super-rich helicopter parents Allison and Laird (the amusing duo Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick), concerned about their shy and friendless son who never drinks, barely leaves him room and—you guessed it—is still a virgin. Out of desperation, they place an online ad looking for a woman in their early-to-mid-twenties who will, ahem, “date” their son (and “date him hard”) to make him come out of his shell pre-college, so the poor kid has a fighting chance to make it out there. Their payment? A shiny Buick, just the thing that Maddie desperately needs.
Let’s face it: a car doesn’t seem enough to compensate someone for such an arrangement — aren’t the rich insufferably entitled? And Lawrence doesn’t look nearly old enough to warrant the running joke of her ancient looks observed by a bunch of clueless teenagers (one of whom hysterically calls her “ma’am”). But the deal gets set in motion regardless, with a sexily dressed Maddie turning up at the dog shelter where Percy volunteers at (aww), as part of a fierce comedic set piece that should be experienced amongst a giggling crowd.
The laughs generated by this scene are bested only moments later, in a sequence that involves nighttime skinny dipping in dark and unforgivingly wild Montauk waters — a frosty and dangerous endeavor no one should dare to try — and resolves into a stark-naked Lawrence fighting drunk intruders attempting to steal their belongings. Regardless of its implausibility, the duo sell the stakes while building a friendship between their characters — a sweetly sensitive, romantic guy who needs to step up towards adulthood, and a fearless woman who can afford to take it down a notch to find peace and happiness.
Along the way, Natalie Morales’ Sara and Scott MacArthur’s Jim, a deadpan couple who are also Maddie’s best friends, run away with some of the film’s most inspired jokes and banters. And “No Hard Feelings” lets out one or two decent observations about class, gender and a generation who’ve regrettably traded good old-fashioned fun with phones and TikTok.
But the film occasionally falters all the same, especially during a transition in the last act when the smitten and heartbroken Percy predictably learns about the transactional nature of Maddie’s affection and decides to confront her and his family. It feels like a whole scene is missing right before his intervention over dinner arrives — one that was likely filmed, but haphazardly deleted out of poor editing instincts. But despite this misstep and an over-the-top action-finale with cheap-looking effects, “No Hard Feelings” finds its groove and sticks the landing, proving that friendship and self-assurance are sometimes the most romantic outcomes of them all.
It’s hard not to cheer to that, along with an ending every dog lover with cherish.