We’ve seen before how actors win Oscars or even just get a nomination and react to it by turning all serious. They take roles in prestige projects and in the process, they sometimes lose what made them distinctive actors to begin with. Something like that happened with Jennifer Lawrence. Her roles in Passengers and Red Sparrow did her no favors, and she found no new notes in Mystique during the entire X-Men series.
In No Hard Feelings, her character goes skinny dipping in the ocean and is having a great time before three teenagers on the beach announce that they’re stealing her clothes. Without batting an eyelash, she wades ashore and proceeds to beat the crap out of the kids. Lawrence has been naked in movies before, but this time is different because it’s funny, as her determination to hang onto her possessions overcomes whatever tiny vestiges of shame she possesses. This actress may have become famous playing Katniss Everdeen, but she’s best at playing hot messes like she did in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and now here, where she gives her funniest performance to date.
She portrays Maddie Barker, a 32-year-old lifelong resident of Montauk, N.Y., whose confidence in her body has brought her precious little. Her car is repo’d by an ex-boyfriend (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with a tow truck and a vengeful attitude, and she needs wheels to drive for Uber during her town’s summer tourist season. Thus, she answers a Craigslist ad posted by some helicopter parents (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) who promise her a lightly used Buick Regal in exchange for deflowering their 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) before he starts at Princeton in the fall. Maddie has loads of experience bedding men and the occasional woman, so she figures the job will be easy as she offers the boy a lift in a friend’s van while wearing her sexiest dress. Percy freaks out and pepper-sprays her, leaving her crawling on her front lawn in that sexy dress and asking “Why?” through her tears.
Director/co-writer Gene Stupnitsky previously made the notably foul-mouthed kids’ movie Good Boys. Here he manages to balance the hijinks with the reality that leads Maddie to take on a gig that she knows is a form of prostitution and just the other side of stat rape. The script has a cavalier attitude toward her dalliance with sex work — maybe too much so. It would have been more interesting if Maddie considered taking this up as a career. Her friend (Natalie Morales) proposes that she go on OnlyFans, which honestly is a pretty good idea for someone who’s hot and knows it, has no qualms about being naked in public, and has little else going for her. Maddie rejects the idea because she needs a car immediately, but what if she hadn’t? I wish Sean Baker had made this film.
Lawrence’s performance is where this movie’s value lies, and not just when she’s naked. Whether Maddie’s navigating everywhere on rollerblades, attempting a clumsy striptease for Percy, or slapping a basketball out of an annoying kid’s hand at a video arcade, Lawrence’s physicality spills all over the screen. Too, she’s great and also difficult to watch in a mortifying sequence at a restaurant where she’s touched by Percy’s piano rendition of a classic rock song, then sees him chance to meet a classmate (Amalia Yoo) and grows hostile and territorial toward this high-school girl. Something seems to connect Lawrence with these highly sexed women who sow chaos as they try to get their act together. She senses their confusion and pain and makes it all hilarious. No Hard Feelings returns her to this, and it’s still encouraging to see.
No Hard Feelings
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky. Written by Gene Stupnitsky and John Phillips. Rated R.