Jennifer Lawrence’s Comedy chops are laid bare in Raunchy Misfire
DIRECTED BY GENE STUPNITSKY/2023
Well this oughta give those right wing “culture warriors” something to rant about. With the very R-rated raunchy comedy No Hard Feelings, Jennifer Lawrence may well complete her transition from America’s sweetheart to America’s pariah. Having aged out of The Hunger Games and taken a break from the spotlight, the talented sweetly smart every-girl has been taking her schtick to the next age bracket… and now, down several levels in terms of quality material. No Hard Feelings plays like a C-level early ‘80s sex comedy that’s short on sex but nonetheless lacking in production value. Somehow, this movie reportedly cost $45 million to make. Suffice to say, we do not see it on screen.
Officially gone is the version of Lawrence who could dance a dance of defiant triumph in her seat during Seth McFarlane’s tasteless Oscar ceremony song “We Saw Your Boobs”. Here, she’s playing Maddie, a rutterless thirty-two-year-old Uber driver who lives in her deceased parents’ suburban house. Her money troubles catch up with her when her car gets impounded, suddenly shutting off her revenue stream… as meager as it was. It soon becomes evident that Maddie lacks the disposition for bartending. Then a most bizarre online personal ad catches her eye…
Apparently, the premise of helicopter parents actively trying to recruit a girl to “date” their late-blooming nineteen-year-old only son in exchange for a gently used Buick is something that really happened. Lawrence claims that her friend, the film’s director Gene Stupnitsky, showed her the real Craigslist ad several years ago, prompting the valid question of who would hatch and go through with such a plan. A few years later, Stupnitsky presented Lawrence with what she claims to be “the funniest screenplay I’d ever read”. I guess she doesn’t get pitched a lot of comedies.
The movie’s 103-minute running time allows plenty of opportunity to ponder the project’s further origins and to dwell on missed solutions to its problems. The blame for the film’s failure lies not with the performance of Ms. Lawrence (although I’ve been a big fan of hers, and despite her valiant efforts this time, I did not come away a bigger fan) or musical theater star Andrew Barth Feldman, who does a great job of playing the introverted son, Percy. (The young actor might just be the only winner in this). Nor is it necessarily a directing problem. The way that filmmaker Stupnitsky executes the visual storytelling of No Hard Feelings is entirely no-frills/utilitarian. A thousand other equally generic directors could turn in an equally bland version of this exact material. The trouble, of course, lies in the screenplay.
The concerned parents who’ve posted the ad turn out to be a pair of wealthy dimbulbs (Matthew Broderick and Lauren Benanti) who’s ploy to lure Percy out of his shell before he sets off on his ascribed path to Princeton in the fall includes not only setting him up with a phony summer fling but insisting that he believes the whole thing’s organic. Vital to the success of No Hard Feelings is whether we can accept that Maddie would not only stoop to this, but also whether she’d agree to the details of the deal, and then stick with it. I never did. And of course, for the story to continue, she does. While it’s true that desperation can usher people down roads previously unfathomed, the situation presented here is beyond the pale.
While the comedy form ought to provide the necessary buffer to make such a situation palatable, Stupnitsky fumbles the setup, which in turn does a lot to further render the premise gross and insurmountable. We’re familiar with stories of manipulated matters of the heart, but in most every case, the central character in those stories is the one being duped. While No Hard Feelings works to give Percy some formidable agency, the film undeniably belongs to Maddie, who is essentially the villain. Or at least the heavy. The parents are the real villains. Which means we should be rooting for Percy… which we do… but at the same time, we’re not supposed to root against Maddie. That leaves us as truly passive observers simply hanging in there to the end to see how this dicey mess resolves, and how low it will stoop to hold our attention.
The question of which age group that this movie is most likely to attract is an intriguing one. If this movie is hoping to court the current youth market (as one might blindly assume), it’s likely way overestimated its appetite for R-rated raunchy film comedies. But then, No Hard Feelings seems to understand this, as evidenced by Percy’s thoughtful lack of overriding libido, and a sequence in which Maddie bursts into bedrooms at a high school house party only keep interrupting kids alone on their phones. (Her punchline: “Doesn’t anyone f**k anymore??”). Furthermore, the film’s needle drops (Hall & Oates… Bob Seger… Tommy James??) give away its true target audience: Gen Xers. When one of the most recent songs is 2002’s “Hot in Herre” by Nelly, things become increasingly clear. (Another theory that makes too much sense: The working title of this film was “Maneater”. As in, “She’ll only come out at night/The lean and hungry type…”)
While No Hard Feelings goes out of its way to justify its existence with little messages for each of the three age groups depicted, it only ends up lecturing one. You can guess which one that is. To its credit, the film does have an understanding of the key differences in the age groups depicted. It accurately depicts the cloistering of wealth within the older generations, and how that is handicapping the subsequent ones. (Many millennial viewers will have no trouble understanding the narrow financial margins of a thirty-two-year-old Uber driver). But is this kind of emotional and physical prostitution the answer?? Even online sex work has far more guardrails and is, in theory, a lot more ethically palatable than what Maddie agrees to. Not to advocate for such a career path, but it IS an all-too-common professional fallback these days. In the context of No Hard Feelings, that makes it at least a marginally viable option for an attractive young woman already willing to manipulate an innocent kid for a used car.
While No Hard Feelings is, overall, a deathly uneven and icky watch, it should be reiterated that Jennifer Lawrence certainly gives it her all. Her all-in penchant for physical comedy, however, doesn’t always serve her character very well. For example, the sight gag of her struggling up steep outdoor stairs while wearing rollerblades trumps the assumed basic logic to just take them off first. A little later, though, she takes everything off for what becomes a goofy fight scene. The dark skirmish, as clumsily shot as it is, successfully wholly subverts the notion that female nudity is sexy but male nudity is funny. Lawrence’s brief naked fight scene is actually quite funny. Her taking her clothes off isn’t the problem or the solution for No Hard Feelings. It’s its overall premise that is at best cringy, at worst morally rancid. One needn’t be a right wing “culture warrior” to arrive at that conclusion.