It’s easy to put charismatic actors in a romantic setting and let them quip at each other. It’s difficult to make anyone care for them or their plight or generate genuine charm.
It’s easy to create gags that tug and pull at the edges of societal norms, aiming to shock through sheer outrageousness. It’s difficult to resist settling for the shock value itself and push through to real humor and insight.
It’s most challenging of all to combine those characteristics into something charming and enthralling without getting lost down any of those potential rabbit holes or competing needs.
No Hard Feelings threads that needle with confidence and precision precisely because it is neither romantic comedy nor shock vehicle but instead a light character study lead by a charming and committed Jennifer Lawrence.
Lawrence’s Maddie Barker is the archetype a lot of modern comedy thinks its building itself around: a selfish, unmotivated slacker whose major ambitions are having fun and surviving summer tourist season on her native Montauk.
Her arrested development does not make her stupid or unable to understand the emotions or needs of the people around her, she just mostly doesn’t care unless they are directly in her life.
Nor does it prevent her from being ruthlessly practical when needed, so when a wealthy couple offers give her the help she needs to keep her from losing her house if she will sleep with their sheltered son, Maddy is more concerned that she can pass for their requested age than any overt ethical issues.
In young Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) she finds both a greater challenge than any man has ever offered her and a strangely kindred spirit she had not expected.
Percy, though undeniably strange and also in need of much maturation, is not a cartoon or caricature built to facilitate only the most juvenile setups writer/director Gene Stupnitsky (Good Boys) can imagine. He is as much a living breathing person as Maddie, each of them separately suffering from the same inability to fully move into adulthood and its attendant difficulties.
Maddie has never been able to let go of her absent father and his refusal to be part of her life; Percy’s parents have never been able to let go of him and let him have a life of his own. Together they make a true whole, a unique, questing dynamic that never quite goes where expected as it invokes surprising tenderness in the gap between romance and friendship. While setting up the most juvenile setups the filmmakers can imagine.
And those are important; No Hard Feelings would not work as well as it does if it weren’t funny. Lawrence is not just charming but a gifted physical comedienne whether she’s trying to kick down a door to get at her rival or being maced in the face by her oblivious target.
It’s just cartoonish enough and just realistic enough to draw a laugh without diminishing her or her situation. Rather than stand outside them and wait for a stupid person to do something stupid, it’s easy to exist in their shoes and understand their pain of being driven through a barbecue grill and accidentally set on fire.
Stupnitsky’s surgical use of gags in-between Maddie and Percy’s awkward attempts at courtship makes everything land better than if it had been part of an endless crescendo of shock or the inevitable end point of the brainless.
If it has a loss its that Stupnitsky’s wonderful gallery of supporting characters get so little chance to shine, showing up for a single moment and vanishing, leaving Maddie herself lost almost entirely in Percy’s world as if little existed outside of the job she’s been hired to do.
Adult humor needs to be tied to adults to be funny and romantic comedy needs charm to be engaging. Too often one or both of those are sacrificed to the expediency of easy comedic tropes and it’s the films that bear the brunt of that.
Refusing to give in on either, No Hard Feelings is equally heartfelt and hilarious and will stick in the memory long after other modern comedies have come and gone. At the very least you’ll never look at someone getting suplexed the same way again.
NO HARD FEELINGS REVIEW SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10
Sony Pictures will release No Hard Feelings in theaters on June 23, 2023. The film is rated R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.