No Hard Feelings – movie review

From the trailer, you’d think No Hard Feelings was another Judd Apatow-movie clone full of raunchy comedy. But director Gene Stupnitsky and his writing partner John Phillips obviously didn’t get the memo. Because they’re crafted a slyly intelligent comedy with some actual heart.

Stupnitsky’s most recent feature film was Good Boys (2019), which hit a lot more of Apatow-like notes. No Hard Feelings is a lot smarter than that film. That’s not to say it’s intellectual or serious, but it goes to some unexpected places and Stupnitsky draws some fine performances from his cast.

The film opens with Maddie Barker (Jennifer Lawrence) having her car repossessed for not paying property taxes. This is a big problem because Maddie has a side hustle as an Uber driver to supplement her earnings from working in a bar. She lives in the rapidly gentrifying community of Montauk on Long Island, and it’s just coming into the peak summer tourist season. With options few, Maddie is desperate for any extra income to save her house from being foreclosed. Then her friend Sara (Natalie Morales) notices a rather strange ad online. A local family want a young woman to date their teenage son – and in return, they’ll give that woman a car.

So Maddie makes her way to the swanky home of Alison Becker (Laura Benanti) and husband Laird (Matthew Broderick). They explain that their 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) is so shy and sheltered (which is mostly their fault, though they don’t recognise it), he won’t fit in when he goes to Princeton University. He’s due to start there in the autumn, so they need to move quickly. It soon becomes clear they expect there’ll be a sexual component to all this. Since she’s in a corner, Maddie agrees. When she “accidentally” meets Percy at the animal shelter where he volunteers, she soon finds the task may be bigger than she expected. Percy is painfully shy and super-nerdy; and even her most outrageous come-ons seem to fall flat.

No Hard Feelings is part of a tradition that stretches all the way back to the Greek myth of Pygmalion. More modern versions include My Fair Lady and The Graduate. In most of these tellings, the older, wiser character draws the more naive character out of their shell but also learns a life lesson themselves. That happens here too; but just when you think you know where it’s heading, it veers in a different direction.

It’s also a bit of a surprise to have the film deal with issues like gentrification, personal autonomy and the inequality. Although the plot is pretty straightforward, Stupnitsky and Phillips create some genuinely funny – and genuinely heartfelt – moments along the way. On the other hand, some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and the film’s transitions between comedy and drama become increasingly strained as it goes along. And while the film makes use of locations in Montauk, the visuals aren’t all that exciting. Indeed, they pale in comparison to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was set in the same town.

One of the film’s main pluses is the raft of fine performances. Jennifer Lawrence (Don’t Look Up), in a role that’s – let’s face it – probably beneath her talents is excellent as Maddie. She brings a worldly sheen to a pretty immature character. Andrew Barth Feldman provides a perfect foil as the painfully awkward Percy. Laura Benanti (tick, tick… BOOM!) and Matthew Broderick are pitch perfect as the helicopter parents. Stupnitsky also seems to have used the casting of Broderick to insert a number of Ferris Beuller references into the film. Natalie Morales (The Little Things) isn’t given a lot of scope as the level-headed Sara, but Scott MacArthur (Halloween Kills) scores several great lines as Sara’s clueless partner Jim.

I was a little surprised at how much I enjoyed No Hard Feelings. This is definitely straight-ahead mainstream filmmaking for a mass audience. But Stupnitsky manages to inject enough smart ideas and feeling into it to lift it above the everyday.

David Edwards

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