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No Hard Feelings Review: A Melancholy Gross-Out Comedy

  • Yes, there are plenty of laughs, but it proves far more successful when it transforms into a quieter coming-of-age tale halfway through.
  • Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman have incredible comedic chemistry.
  • At its weakest when it tries to be a full-blown gross out comedy — the biggest set pieces are the ones most devoid of laughs.

The R-rated studio comedy hasn't disappeared entirely in recent years, but you'd be forgiven for thinking so judging by the initial reaction to "No Hard Feelings." The first trailer was greeted by many on social media as a full-throated return to the sex comedies last in vogue in the peak era of Judd Apatow's productions. Of course, that's a surreal reaction due to how recently the likes of "Blockers" and "Good Boys" both put fresh, Gen-Z friendly twists on the genre to box office success. Those movies are the first two that came to mind while watching Jennifer Lawrence's unexpected detour into raunch-com and not just because it shares a director with the latter in Gene Stupnitsky.

"No Hard Feelings" isn't a throwback so much as a sign of how, through those films and into this, the post-Apatow brand of sexed-up gross-out comedy has matured in the years since "Superbad" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Both of those Apatow products remain underrated in how they balance the melancholic coming-of-age stories of their protagonists with ample lowbrow humor, but it's only in recent years that comedy filmmakers have learned the lesson that this is why those movies remain so eminently rewatchable.

No Hard Feelings Does More Than Just Gross You Out

You may initially watch for the belly laughs, but that's not the reason why audiences have found themselves revisiting the films of Judd Apatow. It's likely that "No Hard Feelings" will be worth revisiting in the same way, proving far more satisfying as a study of two people caught in a state of arrested development than it does as a comedy. I watched "No Hard Feelings" expecting to laugh. I wasn't expecting to walk out genuinely moved.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Maddie Barker, a cash-strapped thirty-something fighting a losing battle to keep the family home in Montauk where she now lives alone. She works shifts as an Uber driver to save up for bills, but when her car is repossessed, she finds herself more desperate than ever. This leads her to Craigslist, where she finds a dubious ad placed by two rich parents (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) looking for someone to date their 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) to bring him out of his shell before he leaves for college. If the lucky applicant succeeds, they'll be given a car as thanks for their efforts. What could possibly go wrong?

In the opening stretch of "No Hard Feelings," I confess I wasn't entirely sold. Lawrence is a remarkable actress, but it felt like she was miscast in her passion project; the character felt not entirely dissimilar from Kaitlin Olson's Dee on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," another foul-mouthed creation who follows short-sighted plans (which, similarly, aim to utilize what she perceives as her irresistible attractiveness) in the hope of success at every possible opportunity. Part of me even wondered, during the first act, if the laughs would land harder were this age gap between the central couple extended even further. (To be fair,, that may be in part due to how ravaged by the sands of time I felt hearing teenagers repeatedly refer to the 32-year-old Lawrence as "old." What hope do those of us who don't look like glamorous Hollywood stars have, as we age less gracefully than her?)

The laughs start streaming in once she is given Feldman as an awkward sparring partner, his dry observational wit unintentionally cutting down her character's poor attempts at seduction at every turn. This proves much funnier when angled towards simple, cringe-inducing humor as the characters begin to date — the grander gross-out set pieces are mostly on the tame side of the genre. I can't imagine anybody being scandalized by, for example, a sequence where Maddie fights a gang of teenagers on the beach while completely naked, or by one of her other dates getting a part of his anatomy that isn't a finger stuck in a Chinese finger trap. It's these set pieces where the laughs dry up the most, but luckily these lazy attempts to shock –- and really, in 2023, who is going to be shocked by the sight of a Hollywood star in the nude -– become few and far between.

The Sex Comedy is Growing Up

The second half of "No Hard Feelings" seamlessly transforms into a tender coming-of-age drama, and it's here where it finally clicked into place why an actor of Jennifer Lawrence's caliber would be eager to take on this role beyond having a fun time on set. Admittedly, opposite her the character of Percy already felt novel within a sex comedy; the awkward teen virgin is a long-established archetype of this genre, but Gene Stupnitsky and his co-screenwriter John Phillips treat his anxieties with care. The fact that Maddie's mission to help get him out of his shell is successful isn't a belabored point either –- there's the underlying suggestion that he would have adapted to adult life in just the same way if he opened up. That this reckoning comes via a piano recital of Hall & Oates' "Maneater," a scene I feared would be embarrassing until it became moving almost out of the blue, is a quiet stroke of genius.

But while a teenager coming to terms with complicated emotions is to be expected, the growth it affords Maddie proves equally riveting. Already hiding a secret from the boy she's pretending to date, she struggles to contend with the fact she's starting to like him as a genuine friend just as he's developing weightier romantic feelings –- an obstacle which continues to trap her in a permanent adolescence she's never been able to escape from, even as her friends grow up and start families all around her. It's hardly a unique character arc (my fiancée quipped it was like "'Licorice Pizza' but with more bodily fluids"), but seeing it tackled with a quiet sincerity in a genre known for its bawdiness caught me by surprise.

If sex comedies are known for tackling mature themes with a remarkable immaturity, then "No Hard Feelings" suggests the genre might finally be able to evolve by growing up. There are plenty of laughs throughout, but it registers far more powerfully as an unexpectedly sentimental coming-of-age tale.