Producers: Alex Saks, Naomi Odenkirk, Marc Provissiero, Jennifer Lawrence and Justine Ciarrocchi Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenplay: Gene Stupnitsky and John Phillips Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti, Natalie Morales, Hasan Minhaj, Scott MacArthur, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Kyle Mooney, Zahn McClarnon, Jordan Mendoza, Amalia Yoo, Alysia Joy Powell and Quincy Dunn-Baker Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures
An attempt to commingle raunchiness and sweetness succeeds only sporadically in Gene Stupnitsky’s “No Hard Feelings,” a double entendre title for a movie that’s a throwback of sorts to the naughty but nice teen romps of decades past. It benefits, however, from the pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and newcomer Andrew Barth Feldman, who manage to make their characters surprisingly likable despite the screenplay’s missteps.
The picture begins with a pretty icky premise. A rich couple summering in Montauk, Laird and Allison Becker (Mathew Broderick and Laura Benanti), are concerned about their withdrawn, reclusive son Percy (Feldman). He’s been accepted at Princeton for the fall, but they’re afraid that his social awkwardness will doom his chance to have a fulfilling college experience. So they decide in effect to hire a girl to seduce him and bring him out of his shell. They put an advertisement on the Internet, offering a car to the successful applicant if she fulfills the assignment. It’s a set-up reminiscent of the cliché in old movies, especially Westerns, in which a macho guy took his son to a brothel so that he could “become a man” by having his initial experience of sex. Updating it to the present somehow makes it even creepier.
Anyway, just by accident local Maddie Barker (Lawrence) learns of the ad from her pregnant friend Sarah (Natalie Morales). In one of the script’s clumsiest coincidences, she happens to be in desperate need of a car at the moment, hers having been impounded for back taxes at the very time she’s supplementing her bartender income as an Uber driver in order to raise the funds needed to save the house she inherited from her mother from being seized by the government too. So she applies for the job even though at thirty-two she’s considerably older than the Beckers had envisioned.
Maddie then approaches Percy at the only place he apparently leaves the house to go—the dog-adoption service where he works as a volunteer alongside protective boss Doug (Hasan Minhaj). Wearing a slinky dress, she comes on to Percy and insists on giving him a ride home in a van she’s borrowed from Sarah’s surfer-dude husband Jim (Scott MacArthur). Percy’s terrified belief that she’s trying to kidnap him ends the ride with him pulling out his can of Mace, but eventually the misunderstanding is cleared up and he agrees to go out on a date with her.
The movie alternates between rowdy sequences—Maddie futilely trying to take back the car that’s being towed away by Gary (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), one of the guys she ghosted after a single date; Maddie getting drenched with a hose trying to get the Mace from her eyes; an evening skinny dip on the beach that leads to a fight between a naked Maddie and three drunken kids trying to steal their clothes—and simple slapstick, as when Maddie tries to negotiate the Beckers’ hillside driveway while on roller skates (why didn’t she simply take them off?), with others designed to explain her harsh personality and rejection of commitment (daddy issues) and the wall Percy’s built around himself (school bullying about his reported over-closeness with his parents).
There are also moments designed to show Maddie’s essential soft-heartedness (her concerns about Sarah and Jim having to move for financial reasons, and the lengths to which she’ll go to help them) and how Percy has been molded into the person he is (a meeting with his aggressive ex-nanny, played by an unsettling Kyle Mooney). And there’s, inevitably, the anger Percy feels when he finds out that his parents had hired Maddie; unfortunately, it takes the form of a car-destruction scene that feels like a “Ferris Bueller” rip-off. But there are also occasional throwaway bits that work surprisingly well, like the reaction of Native American Zahn McClarnon, in a single-scene cameo, when Maddie complains that he doesn’t understand what it’s like having the government take your property.
In all, this is a movie that swings back and forth between attempts to be over-the-top comic and others designed to be insightful observations about the lead characters. Fortunately Lawrence proves to be up for everything, playing even a poorly-written scene in which she’s the oldest “guest” at an incoming-freshmen Princeton party with conviction. And newcomer Feldman is an ingratiating presence. Looking a bit like a young Jamie Bell (think Billy Elliott with a few years added on), he endows naïve Percy with an innocence that makes you root for him. He even manages a potentially disastrous musical scene, when he’s taken Maddie on a “prom” date (both skipped their real ones) and is prodded by her to show off his keyboard skills at a restaurant, where he undertakes a Vegas lounge-like version of “Maneater.” As for the supporting cast, many, like MacArthur and Mooney, come off too strong, but Broderick, boasting a huge mane of greying hair (and a pretty ample stomach), goes the opposite route with a laid-back turn in which he seems utterly comfortable.
The movie is attractive visually, not just because of Lawrence but because actual New York locations are nicely used by production designer Russell Barnes and cinematographer Eigil Bryld. Editor Brent White keeps the action moving along, and the score by Mychael Danna and Jessica Rose Weiss stays within reasonable bounds for this sort of high-concept rom-com.
But in the final analysis “No Hard Feelings” feels ambivalent about what sort of movie it wants to be—a raunchy sex farce or a sensitive study of two troubled people whose unlikely friendship helps both overcome their problems—and in trying to be both, it seems forced and unconvincing. Lawrence and Feldman, however, almost pull it off.