With “No Hard Feelings,” Jennifer Lawrence Finally Has a Movie That Fits Her Persona

Could this signal the return of the R-rated comedy?

June 23, 2023 6:00 am
Jennifer Lawrence in "No Hard Feelings"
Jennifer Lawrence in "No Hard Feelings"

Technically, No Hard Feelings is one of the few big summer movies so far that isn’t a sequel or otherwise connected to a major brand. But in a sense, it’s both: the second half of a Jennifer Lawrence brand reboot, the light and funny flipside to last fall’s quietly serious Causeway. Lawrence has done comedy before, on the chaotic sets of David O. Russell movies and in the friendly environment of various chat shows, but No Hard Feelings is her first foray into broad studio comedy with a high-concept premise: A desperate woman is hired as a temporary sex worker to “date” a teenage boy for the summer.

Lawrence plays Maddie, a Long Island townie who needs a working car so she can continue to make money as an Uber driver during Montauk’s busy summer season and keep her family home from foreclosure. She answers an unusual personal ad, offering a vehicle in exchange for coaxing a concerned couple’s shy 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) out of his shell before he heads to college in the fall. The helicoptering parents understand, even embrace, the seediness of the arrangement, figuring a controlled fling with an older woman is preferable to a pre-college summer spent playing video games in isolation. 

That Lawrence, one of the younger genuine superstars in Hollywood, is the “older woman” in this scenario is part of the joke. The parents are hoping for someone in their early-to-mid-twenties, not too far removed from Percy’s age; Maddie, like Lawrence, is in her early 30s, something revealed during her very funny and expertly played interview scene with the parents. It can be a dicey proposition to sell an inarguably beautiful woman as even mildly undesirable, and equally disingenuous for a world-famous actor to suddenly play a hardscrabble, working-class hero, especially in studio comedies with a boundless need to romanticize and valorize their stars. But while No Hard Feelings does waffle a bit on whether Maddie is genuinely coarse, occasionally stupid or just all-consumingly stubborn, the movie doesn’t dress Lawrence’s star power in poor-little-me drag. Instead, the movie has Maddie wielding her more bombshell qualities against a small target, deceptively difficult to hit. Once she has Percy in her sights, he proves too timid, rule-bound, and (it turns out) sweet-natured to jump right into bed, even when he (eventually) believes that Maddie desires him.

This gives Lawrence the opportunity to play some dolled-up and, in one case, dressed-down slapstick. In one scene, she forcefully coaxes Percy into some late-night skinny-dipping on the beach — a funny-enough exchange between his excuses and her increasingly impatient dismissals, shot with the usual movie-star modesty. Then, after getting him into the water, the movie casts that teasing modesty aside for an action sequence, of sorts, shot with truly unexpected boldness: J-Law as an unembarrassed nude dynamo. It’s a neat trick, the audience only realizing in retrospect that the set-up is goofing on the relative primness of so many on-screen sex symbols (and calls back, intentionally or not, to Mystique in her X-Men movies). 

Lawrence has always had a sense of how to wield her body, whether in the stillness of Winter’s Bone, the gesticulations of Silver Linings Playbook, or the weaponized (and probably, granted, sometimes stunt-doubled) dexterities of Mystique. Here, it gives her physical comedy something that can be the death of slapstick: effort. Whether she’s lapdancing on her young companion or inexplicably attempting to climb a flight of stairs in rollerblades, Maddie propels herself forward with a determination befitting an Uber driver without a car. The movie frequently and cheekily emphasizes the sheer amount of work involved in maintaining some kind of glamorous movie-star mystique, even as people wonder aloud if you’re too old. 

“Causeway” Is a Return to Form for Jennifer Lawrence
But why do Lawrence the serious actress and J-Law the movie star have to be two separate things?

No Hard Feelings isn’t all movie-star subtext. It echoes the 2011 boom of female-fronted R-rated comedies, recalling the economic desperation and thirtysomething coming-of-age story in Bridesmaids and the DGAF bluntness of Bad Teacher. The latter was co-written by Gene Stupinski, also the director and co-writer of No Hard Feelings, which admittedly doesn’t go quite so hard. The Cameron Diaz character in Bad Teacher is less “likable” than Lawrence’s Maddie, but her goal — find someone rich and preferably hot to marry so she can quit working forever — is so nakedly avaricious that it gives the movie’s comedy a nasty clarity. No Hard Feelings is the kind of studio comedy that cuts way back on the laughs in its final half-hour so its lead can do some earnest soul-searching over her semi-tragic backstory. It’s one of two major pitfalls of post-Bridesmaids comedies about women; the other is to overemphasize the crude stunts, which No Hard Feelings mostly avoids; it has some salty language and sexuality, but little scatology. The R-rated material has a certain sexy zip that makes it more of a screwball comedy at heart, with a likable schemer softening slightly as she gets to know her mark. Of course, a classic screwball comedy might play the film’s central complication — Maddie’s appreciation for Percy despite the skepticism and frustration she expresses at his Gen-Z sensitivities — for more laughs than pathos.

Yet even the squishier bits of No Hard Feelings feel earned, as far as those things go, because Stupinski affixes the movie as a whole to a baseline of believability. Maddie isn’t actually a cartoon bombshell; she just dresses as one because she needs the money. Stupinski wrote this part for Lawrence, and she obviously wanted something a little more soulful than a purely comic turn, maybe something more akin to what her friend Amy Schumer was doing in Trainwreck. No Hard Feelings doesn’t quite get there; it’s more traditionally shticky at the front of the movie, and less of an endearingly messy rom-com at the end, with an attitude toward sex that may veer closer to stereotypical Gen-Z prudery than the filmmakers might like to admit. It’s also a summer movie that feels, refreshingly, like the actual season at hand, which has not typically been Lawrence’s milieu, apart from the occasional warm-weather X-Men movie. The lightness of No Hard Feelings suits her, in part because its likable comedy doesn’t demand that she shed her natural grit or intensity — just give it some sun. 

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