3 out of 5 stars

The desire to lose one’s virginity (especially among teenage males), and the anxieties surrounding it, has been a staple of raunchy sex comedies. But some films treat the subject in a gentler way and, despite its sniggering title and a few jokes written in a similar vein, No Hard Feelings is one of them. The marketing department might not want you to know this, but deep down the film has more in common with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (2023) than American Pie (1999).

Gene Stupnitsky’s film isn’t always successful in bridging the wide gap between the sweet and the dirty-minded, and at times the jokes feel clumsily inserted (see what I did there?). A similar point was commonly made about Stupnitsky’s directorial debut, Good Boys (2019), but strong performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman, as well as the movie’s general good nature, thankfully make up for that in No Hard Feelings.

And while it’s come in for criticism on other grounds—that its premise makes a joke out of sex work, and that the idea of a woman in her thirties deliberately seducing a boy in his teens would be seen as far more odious if their genders were reversed—neither argument holds up.

It’s true that Lawrence’s character does embark on the seduction for purely mercenary reasons, but the film is careful to emphasise she isn’t a sex worker and is far from an involuntary participant. It also makes clear the whole enterprise is a misguided one anyway. As for the second point, while the notion of a movie about a man grooming a girl in the same way would be unacceptable, No Hard Feelings can hardly be blamed for inconsistencies in popular morality. Again, too, the movie really doesn’t endorse the premise as a good thing.

No Hard Feelings is set in Montauk, New York, where wealthy parents Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti) are concerned that their 19-year-old son Percy (Feldman) will soon be heading off to Princeton University with little experience in the ways of the world, specifically sexual ones. Seemingly unaware of their own role in creating this situation (they anxiously monitor every aspect of this young adult’s life), the couple advertise for a woman to “date” their son, making it clear they expect “dating” to involve a physical side. (They’ve already established Percy’s not gay by checking his internet browsing history.)

The successful applicant for the job—No Hard Feelings was supposedly inspired by a real Craigslist ad—is Maddie (Lawrence), a bartender and ride-hailing driver who’s recently lost her vehicle. She agrees to fake a chance meeting with Percy and to then start “dating” him, after the successful completion of which his parents will give her a Buick Regal. (Another way in which No Hard Feelings strives to downplay any impression of the character as a sex worker, though of course the difference between cash and a car is in reality irrelevant, particularly since she wants the Buick in order to start earning as a driver again).

Off Maddie goes to an animal shelter where Percy volunteers, and cue the first of several scenes which play out very much as one would expect—ever more outrageous physical come-ons from Maddie, apparent obliviousness from Percy—which also illustrate both performers’ ability to keep their characters just on the right side of believability even while they’re wallowing in comedic stereotype.

Little of what follows will surprise anyone. Once the movie’s established Maddie is a good person and not an exploitative schemer, it’s inevitable a more genuine relationship will develop between her and Percy (to the point that it’s her who resents him going to a party with other friends), and also that he’ll prove he’s not the mollycoddled wallflower his parents imagine.

The pleasure No Hard Feelings has to offer lies in individual scenes rather than in its formulaic big picture, and while there’s the occasional and obligatory-feeling sex joke (as well as one rather pointless indulgence in full-frontal female nudity), its best moments are about the characters and their relationships. There’s Percy’s panic when he imagines, early on, that Maddie’s trying to kidnap rather than seduce him; his excessive caution when she talks him into skinny-dipping, followed by her assertiveness when a group on the beach steals their clothes; and another scene later on where the tables are turned and it’s Percy who seems the assured one while Maddie and his parents writhe in discomfort.

The film’s gentleness is typified by the two leads’ first formal date, in a bar where Percy—dressed completely inappropriately for the venue, or indeed for any venue—encounters an ex of Maddie’s. But where many films would have the bar’s rougher male patrons turn nasty on the young man, here they’re no more than mildly amused by his fish-out-of-water vibes. Similarly, when the talented Percy is reluctantly persuaded to play the piano at a local restaurant, there are no pratfalls or embarrassments, just real admiration from the other diners.

Lawrence is completely at home in the role of Maddie, and though she’s given a sentimental back story involving her mother’s death and the risk of losing the family home, she doesn’t need it to establish vulnerability. We sense from the beginning that Maddie’s man-eater act is exactly that. Indeed, she’s as nervous as Percy, perhaps existentially more so. Feldman, meanwhile, in only his second film role and his first starring one, manages to make both Percy’s initial fussiness and his emergent strength plausible.

Broderick and Benanti are marvellously droll as the parents, well-intentioned but entirely out of touch with the realities of their son and his world. Broderick, in particular, seems to assume that Percy’s experiences at college are going to be exactly like his own some 40 years earlier. Indeed, the biggest joke of the movie is the parents’ presumption that their whole making-the-boy-a-man scheme is remotely necessary for Gen Z.

Among the smaller roles, Scott MacArthur and Natalie Morales contribute watchable support as friends of Maddie’s in a subplot that isn’t strictly necessary, but helps reinforce a further dimension of the film—the way closely-knit smaller communities, like Maddie’s Montauk, can be disrupted by the arrival of wealthy newcomers from outsider like Percy’s parents. (Perhaps a parallel is being drawn with their intrusions into their son’s life.) Jordan Mendoza is also entertainingly glowering as a co-worker of Percy’s at the animal shelter who just might, I thought, harbour a secret and rather jealous crush on him.

Writer-director Stupnitsky’s background is very much in comedy (he previously worked on NBC’s remake of The Office and wrote a couple of features before moving into directing), but No Hard Feelings suggests he might do well in more emotionally-led genres too. It finds space to make some almost-serious points, it gives the actors space to be real amid the gags, and though it does laugh at its characters, it’s always in an affectionate way. 

USA | 2023 | 103 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Gene Stupnitsky.
writers: Gene Stupnitsky & John Phillips.
starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Laura Benanti & Matthew Broderick.