In the realm of modern comedy films, No Hard Feelings is the party animal who shows up to kick-start a boring party: the kid who spikes the punch at the prom, the guy who hijacks the sound system at a stodgy soirée and plays rock and roll, the girl who jumps on the bar and dances for a cheering crowd. In movie terms, it’s Ren McCormick coaxing everybody in a repressed town to get up and dance, Al Czervik sticking it to the squares at Bushwood Country Club, and Bluto Blutarsky starting a food fight by pretending to be a zit. I’m not saying it’s as good as those classics, but it invokes the same spirit they did, and while there’s a genuine human story at its heart, the other shoe never drops in No Hard Feelings; it never switches gears and turns into a lecture. It’s just a fun time with some good, relatable characters in a great setting. And it’s legitimately funny.
Maddie Barker (Jennifer Lawrence), a bartender/Uber driver in Montauk, Long Island, is struggling to make ends meet. The government is two steps away from taking her house because she’s behind on property taxes, and they repossess her car to pay off part of her debt, meaning her income has effectively been cut in half. In her desperation, she answers a Craiglist ad for a wealthy couple who want her to date (which is, of course, a euphemism) their son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), a severely introverted nineteen-year-old heading for Princeton in the fall. As compensation, Maddie will get a Buick Regal and a chance to save her house. But Percy is a tougher nut to crack than one would expect a teenage hormone bomb being seduced by Jennifer Lawrence to be. Hilarity and a lot of heart ensue.
*BELOW TRAILER NOT SAFE FOR WORK*
The characters drive No Hard Feelings, and in the beginning, that’s mostly Maddie. She’s a train wreck in a lot of ways; she’s in dire financial straits, she’s unable – or unwilling – to maintain anything close to a healthy relationship, and she’s become so prickly that she’s barely hanging onto her bartending gig. She also hates the way rich out-of-towners are buying up land and turning her beach community into a vacationing spot for the well-to-do – and jacking up the property taxes that are bleeding her dry. The movie sets up her personality and predicament economically and effectively in the first ten or fifteen minutes so that when she sees the ad from Percy’s parents, it’s believable that she’d consider it and ultimately accept it.
When Percy enters the picture, he’s pretty much just the mark, the impossibly oblivious nerd Maddie must seduce to get her new car. But he becomes much more than that as No Hard Feelings goes along, a fully-realized, entirely recognizable kid who’s retreated into the four walls of his bedroom because he’s had a hard time at school and his parents insist on babying him. The biggest hurdle for this movie to get past is why someone wouldn’t jump at the chance to be with a woman who looks like Jennifer Lawrence, but Percy’s reasoning makes sense, especially for someone who’s never had any friends or shared experiences with kids his own age. He looks like a loser, but he’s actually a kind, caring guy who values more than physical gratification.
Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman completely sell these characters. Lawrence embodies Maddie’s anger and fear, her frustration with what’s becoming of her home, and the unexpected challenge of getting Percy to sleep with her. She seems the way the real Jennifer Lawrence seemed before she started acting like an arrogant, put-upon Hollywood snob (whom, incidentally, Maddie would hate). But Feldman is the real revelation, slowly peeling the onion of Percy’s awkwardness and making him more human in seemingly every scene. Maddie is the showier (and funnier) role, but Percy is the more difficult one, and Feldman makes him just as likable. And the two characters complement each other and have good arcs that play off each other. The main story beats are fairly predictable, and it drags a bit in the third act, but in terms of the characters, No Hard Feelings is a well-written movie.
But it’s funny, too, and that’s important. No Hard Feelings isn’t afraid to make you laugh, and it’s honest humor that comes from truth and character. It also uses the characters to highlight the absurdity in the world around them. Maddie’s string of one-night stands is funny because of the guys’ desperation and Maggie’s unwillingness to give them a chance; Percy’s earnest and sheltered personality is funny because of how silly it is and how it highlights the smallness of others. Government bureaucracy, helicopter parenting, the aloofness of the wealthy, the tech-obsessed current generation, and the shift in gender roles are all targets. There’s even a satisfying sequence where No Hard Feelings mocks the woke, showing them for the humorless crybabies they are; I was hoping this movie wouldn’t go woke, but I didn’t expect it to go this far in the opposite direction, and I’m thrilled this is starting to happen now.
No Hard Feelings, as you can tell from its premise, is also a sex comedy, and while it doesn’t go as far as many of the classics, it doesn’t shy away from it either. The movie is full of sensuality, with Maddie using her looks, voice, and seductive personality to nuclear effect – or, it would be on anyone but Percy. There’s no finger-wagging or whining about the male gaze; it’s fun and sexy, and it doesn’t apologize for it. The same is true of Percy’s parents, played by Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti. They’re not portrayed as bad people for wanting to get their son laid; they’re concerned about him and want him to have a fun, unsheltered life, not realizing that they’re the reason he’s so sheltered. They’re essentially hiring a prostitute for Percy, but there’s no talk of womanizing or sexism or any of that; it’s done out of love. The seaside setting helps with this, bringing color and humanity to people often written off as “quaint” in a movie like this; it also makes for some good opportunities for comedy and sexiness – sometimes both at once.
I had a blast watching No Hard Feelings. It’s an old-fashioned comedy that allows itself to be funny, sexy, and human, with strong characters played by well-cast actors who are equally good at making you laugh and tugging at your heartstrings. This is the other kind of summer movie, the one not about superheroes or alien invasions, and we haven’t seen a good one in what feels like a long time. This is a good one.