' ' Cinema Romantico: No Hard Feelings

Monday, November 20, 2023

No Hard Feelings

“Does anybody remember laughter?” cries out Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) in “Almost Famous” as she bursts backstage with a champagne bottle in each hand, quoting Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin from “The Song Remains the Same.” Jennifer Lawrence may as well be quoting Balk quoting Plant in Gene Stupnitsky’s rom com “No Hard Feelings” by charging into a genre that’s gone stale just like her character charges into a house party of college-aged kids, takes stock of all the yutes filming this out of place thirty something with their phones, admonishing for them failing to go off and screw as if she’s castigating an entire movie genre for its lack of sex, never mind capitulation to shame. In this moment I thought of Amazon Prime’s horror comedy “Totally Killer” in which a present-day teenager inadvertently time travels to 1987, stopping a killer but also coming face to face with a politically incorrect culture. Lawrence’s character might not be literally time-traveling, but she still comes across like one beamed in from a raunchy 1987 comedy, and when she attacks a group of different young people on a beach for deigning to steal her clothes while she’s off skinny-dipping, the nudity doesn’t feel gratuitous so much as an R-rated statement. JLaw is letting it all hang out.

Lawrence is Maddie Burke, an Uber driver who has her car repossessed as the movie opens, being priced out from the tourist-plagued Montauk where she lives in a home inherited from her mother. These details suggest a sort of socially conscious class comedy, though just as her home never feels lived in despite its outsized importance on the plot and her Uber driving is limited to one late movie montage, this is mostly just utilized as set-up, meaning that when Maddie sees a Craig’s list ad from a couple helicopter parents (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) offering a Buick Regal as compensation to, ahem, date their sheltered son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) as a kind of emotional and sexual boot camp in advance of his going off to Princeton, she agrees. It’s as ancient a storyline as it is uncouth, Lawrence channeling Kelly LeBrock in “Weird Science” or Rebecca DeMornay in “Risky Business,” yet quite frequently delivered with gusto, as much by Lawrence as the movie. When Maddie shows up at the dog rescue where Percy works in a cocktail dress and more or less forces him into her friend’s broken-down van, it builds to an obvious punchline that nevertheless works, an erotic 80s thriller merging with an 80s comedy in which villain and victim are turned upside down. 

Later, when Maddie careens down the highway with Percy clinging to the hood of the car, the scene goes too far in the best way, leading to a car chase and a game of chicken in which Lawrence’s facial expressions, like the desperate gulp before flooring it, evince an unexpected humanity in the unlikeliest of situations. That Percy is on the hood of the car in the first place is because she has his phone and won’t give it back, goosing the over-the-top comedy with his nomophobia, and hints at how she breaks him out of his shell. That idea works best in moments like these, where comedy and character amalgamate. Gradually, though, “No Hard Feelings” becomes not just more sincere, but more sweet. That’s not entirely bad, because Lawrence and Feldman effect a believable chemistry despite the implausibility, if not ickiness, of their age difference. But it’s also disappointing to see a movie of such initial irreverence opt for nothing more than a commonplace message of To Thine Own Self Be True, doubly ironic given how “No Hard Feelings” ultimately fails to follow Lawrence’s spirited shamelessness into the breach. 

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