No Hard Feelings carefully follows the template of modern cinematic comedy: Raunchy and skeezy on the outside, but with a gooey, sweet filling in the middle. Its protagonist is a lost soul, adrift and flailing in the Sea of Adulthood. This is the filmic build Judd Apatow wishes he could patent. In that case, the makers behind Feelings would owe some serious royalties.
This movie does add a layer you won’t find in 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up: Genuine ickiness. The very premise behind the film is, well…unsavory. More on that in a minute. As the story begins, Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) finds her life clanging against the barrel’s bottom. She’s lost her car, which puts both her job and house in jeopardy. In an early scene, Maddie rollerblades down the highway, as a column of honking cars forms behind her. “You think I chose this?!?” She screams back at them.
Desperate and nearly destitute, Maddie spots a bizarre wanted ad: A wealthy couple offers up their Buick Regal to any young girl who will boink their dweeby, socially-insulated son. Ordinarily, such a proposition would be a joke, but Maddie’s down to the proverbial felt. Without that car, her life will be demolished. (Of course, the filmmakers have her gloss over the perfectly reasonable solution of adding a roommate. Inject 10% more logic into this story, and it ceases to exist.)
Maddie tiptoes into a meeting with the parents behind the ad. Naturally, they’re so WASPy, wealthy, and granola, it feels like the writers built them out of a kit: Allison (Laura Benanti) and Laird (Matthew Broderick) are passive and pleasant to an obnoxious degree.
They’re also worried about their 19-year-old son. Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) is painfully introverted. He spends most of his time cloistered in the basement, lost in VR games and Instagram reels. Meanwhile, Percy has no actual friends or social life. He’s about to enroll at Princeton, but–gasp–he doesn’t even like to drink! Allison and Laird deliver a simple, strange mission to Maddie: Get Laird out of basement. Teach him the ways of the world. And, of yeah, break him off a little sex along the way.
To further complicate matters, Maddie can’t reveal her employment to Percy, or it’s no deal. Accordingly, she arranges a stilted meet cute at the pet shelter where the kid volunteers. Predictably, he’s awkward. But so is she, fumble-f*cking through their conversation as if she learned English through internet pornography. In reality, this situation would rot on the vine, but as Maddie and Percy are powered by well-paid screenwriters, the story simply keeps winding along.
And that means we proceed to the raunchy portion of tonight’s multi-course meal. I hope y’all are ready for people getting maced, barfing uncontrollably, and engaged in nude beach brawls, ’cause that’s what Feelings is gonna serve on a platter. (Director Gene Stupinsky cut his teeth on the cringefest of the American Office, and it shows.) How well you tolerate people getting thwacked in the va-joo-joo will probably determine your overall rating of this film. If you’re not game for mild repugnance, it’s best to peel a full star off this rating.
As for the cream filling, the movie pulls it off surprisingly well. Stupinsky (who co-writes with John Phillips, another Office alum) slowly renders Maddie and Percy into more realistic humans. Lawrence and Feldman oblige him with genuinely warm and relatable performances. Both are likable actors, and it shines into their work. For all the wrongheadedness that underlies its inception, Feelings becomes more watchable as it goes.
Still, that yuckiness never fully dissipates. As others have said, swap genders for the leads and you have an ugly, predatorial calamity. Even as is, there’s a noticeable griminess in watching Maddie seduce and manipulate someone so much younger than her. Feldman is young, but he looks even younger, a fact that only amplifies how cringey the film is. (The filmmakers don’t help by introducing a subplot where Percy is learning to drive.) To see Maddie drag an unwilling Percy into the ocean for skinny-dipping is to know supreme discomfort.
And it’s supposed to be. I get that. Without that cringe, Feelings has no raison d’etre. But my focus is on whether or not all those skin-crawling hijinks add up to anything. Honestly, they don’t. Sure, the film mines a few laughs on how much older and more assured Lawrence is, but the filmmakers also beat that one joke into ground beef. The better humor comes when Maddie and Percy behave like actual residents of this planet, and not just goofballs in a cinematic sitcom. (Example: Percy’s baffling lyrical misread of “Maneater,” the Hall and Oates piledriver. The film then pays that off that joke in a touching way.) No Hard Feelings would’ve been better off aiming a little higher. Don’t believe me? Think about this: The Graduate is funnier and more daring, and it came out fifty-six years ago.
103 min. R. On demand.