Written by Tom Augustine.
In the leadup to watching No Hard Feelings, I asked a few people I know if they’re interested in watching the film. It had a genuinely funny trailer and featured the return to the big screen of Jennifer Lawrence, one of her generation’s foremost stars, after a hiatus from screen acting. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise when I discovered that most people not only hadn’t heard of the film, but didn’t have any desire to see it. New Zealanders as a general rule (at least in my experience) tend to turn their noses up at American comedy, preferring the more ‘high-brow’ hijinks of British comedy. What’s more, I repeatedly heard ‘why would I go and see this on the big screen? It’s not exactly a ‘big’ movie, is it?’
It’s this kind of viewpoint that has inadvertently made No Hard Feelings something of an ambitious, high-stakes question for distributors. In an era when the cinema is only considered a place for watching things of grand scale, is there a mainstream audience for the humble comedy? Once upon a time, comedy was considered the money-maker for distributors, alongside horror. They were less expensive to produce, and offered broad enjoyment for a massive audience. In the modern structure of releasing, however, comedies are increasingly consigned to the realm of streaming. The oversimplification of the cinema’s gifts – that it is most effective when being used to overwhelm with pure scale and enormity – has meant that simple but wondrous pleasures, like sitting in a packed moviehouse and laughing collectively at a film, have all but gone extinct.
No Hard Feelings has positioned itself as part of a noble line of American sex comedies such as Porky’s, Animal House, Knocked Up and Superbad. There’s something especially noughties about the particular iteration of the sex comedy Feelings is aiming for, however, with its sometimes uneasy relationship between crass punchlines and genuine sentiment. It’s a model most closely associated with Judd Apatow, who oversaw a boomtime in American comedies with the aforementioned Knocked Up and Superbad, but also films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Funny People, This is 40 and Trainwreck. No Hard Feelings, from the director of the underrated Good Boys, Gene Stupnitski, has an ace up its sleeve – Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence.
The dearth of on-screen comedies in the modern era has given this low-key, bawdy sex comedy a sheen of outlier importance that serves as a bit of a detriment to what No Hard Feelings actually is – an enjoyable, sweet-natured piece of low-stakes fun most notable for the return of one of our era’s best stars in Jennifer Lawrence.
The iconic actress who had a brief period of total media saturation somewhere around The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle willingly receded from big-screen work for a lengthy hiatus, returning with last year’s under-the-radar Causeway. No Hard Feelings feels like a fresh start for Lawrence, one that makes good on an aspect of her public image that won audience hearts – her bawdy and self-deprecating sense of humour. Here she plays Maddie, a working class thirtysomething in deep financial debt on the brink of losing her mother’s house to the taxman. Slaving away at multiple customer-facing jobs as a bartender and Uber driver (in jeopardy since her car has been repossessed), Maddie discovers an opportunity in an online ad offering a new car in exchange for ‘dating’ the lonely misfit son of a pair of wealthy WASP types living nearby. Maddie then covertly attempts to woo said misfit, nineteen-year-old Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) to often hilarious, frequently R-rated ends.
Lawrence is ferocious in No Hard Feelings, fully leaning into the role’s rough edges. She’s an actress with an awareness of her public persona, but also fully in control of her own sexuality, which she wields with a frequently very funny lack of subtlety. Her presence is what has ensured No Hard Feelings has landed on the big screen, and the chance to see Lawrence in a new, long-awaited shade is worth the price of admission alone. She enjoys a fun, flinty chemistry with Feldman, whose Percy is a wispy, timid little lamb slowly being coaxed out of his shell. The film as a whole is less accomplished than what the two actors are bringing to it. Consistently chuckle-worthy, with a few fantastic laugh-lines and pratfalls, No Hard Feelings’ aims are humble, and it is sort of a shame that it has invited the level of buzz that it has, when the film is far less interested in the manic highs of Superbad, instead navigating between comedy and moments of genuine drama.
In the hands of Stupnitsky, No Hard Feelings tackles a range of modern concerns, bringing this now old-fashioned model into the 2020s with its ruminations on kids and their dang phones, helicopter parenting, the draining demands of scarcity living in a capitalist world and even the gentrification of small towns. Stupnitsky lacks the directing talent of Superbad’s Greg Mottola or even Apatow himself, however, and it is here where the film falters. After an antic opening act, the film settles into a lengthy, sagging middle section in which the laughs are sporadic. There’s no worse fate for a comedy than silence in the theatre, and at times in the middle of the film there’s certainly the risk of that.
It’s clear what Stupnitsky and his team are going for here – with a genuine talent like Lawrence and the aesthetic of the Apatow era in hand, there’s the natural desire to inject more gravitas and pathos to this simplistic and raunchy story. The mix is somewhat off, however, and at times No Hard Feelings oscillates between tones inelegantly, aiming to be both a sweet and gentle dramedy and an outrageous farce. This is not helped by the editing, which often cuts the legs out from under laugh lines, ensuring they fall utterly flat (no less obvious than in scenes with Percy’s one-time nanny, played by Kyle Mooney). As the film comes out the other side of this, however, the performances have ensured that these characters are people we care for, and there’s genuine emotional payoff in the film’s final moment that ensures No Hard Feelings has a sweet, lingering aftertaste. Most of all, it was just a joy to sit in a theatre full of people and be one of the crowd, laughing.
No Hard Feelings is in cinemas now.
No Hard Feelings
Movie title: No Hard Feelings (Stupnitski, 2023)
Movie description: The dearth of on-screen comedies in the modern era has given this low-key, bawdy sex comedy a sheen of outlier importance that serves as a bit of a detriment to what No Hard Feelings actually is - an enjoyable, sweet-natured piece of low-stakes fun most notable for the return of one of our era’s best stars in Jennifer Lawrence.
Date published: June 22, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Gene Stupnitsky, John Phillips
Director(s): Gene Stupnitsky
Actor(s): Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Laura Benanti, Matthew Broderick