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No Hard Feelings had us nostalgic for a very specific point in movie history. We’re talking about the five years from 1999 to 2004, starting with American Pie and ending around the release of The Girl Next Door. Inbetween, you had Sex Drive, Road Trip, Harold + Kumar and Dude Where’s My Car?, among others. It’s when comedies were loud and proud about their horniness, where the DVDs came with ‘Uncensored!’ plastered across the front (including deleted nude scenes), and Tom Green was still a thing.
We can imagine picking up the No Hard Feelings DVD from Blockbuster and seeing that ‘Uncensored!’ sash across the front. It is, with the exception of a couple of nods to modern sensibilities, a film of that period. And whether you enjoy it is dependent on whether you loved those movies as much as we did, and how much you’ve been missing them. They certainly don’t make ’em like this anymore.
The set up is brilliantly contrived. Maddie Barker (Jennifer Lawrence) is poor. Her car has just been repossessed, which is a problem since she’s gigging it as an Uber driver. She bartends to make cash, but it puts her into contact with the many rich, seasonal home-owners in her neighbourhood, whom she hates. The gentrification of her summer resort town has put up her property taxes and it’s looking like she can’t afford to live here anymore.
In comes the contrived bit. Because Maddie spots an advert, posted by some ‘helicopter parents’ who are looking for help with their son, Percy Becker (Andrew Barth Feldman). They have a geeky introvert who is going to Princeton next year, but he stays locked in his room and has no friends, let alone those of the female variety. They offer a Buick to anyone who is willing to date their son and bring him out of his shell. Except the implication is that it’s slightly more than just dating.
No Hard Feelings doesn’t so much wave some red flags, as ram-raid a red flag shop. It’s got tastelessness written all over it. In the premise alone, we’ve got inappropriate age gaps, sex working, consent and more. But remember: No Hard Feelings is of the American Pie school of films. Tastelessness is the point. It’s how you resolve it, and how your characters learn why it might be problematic. That’s the message that the jokes eventually lead towards.
So, we have a fantastic conversation between Laird Becker (ah, it’s great to see Matthew Broderick back), Allison Becker (Laura Benanti) and Maddie, as they dance around the ‘sex worker’ question. She’s not a sex worker, she’s just having sex with their kid for a car – not that there’s anything wrong with sex working. Maddie’s friends (Natalie Morales and Scott MacArthur – again, brilliant) are mostly raised eyebrows throughout, as they acknowledge that they’re not going to change Maddie’s mind on this one, but love her anyway.
Maddie applies herself to the task full throttle, and it’s a joy to see Jennifer Lawrence gunning it. She clearly just wants this task over with, so she dials the vampishness and eagerness up to 11 – way more than is sensible for someone as nervy as Percy. So we get some of those red-band, ‘uncensored’ moments, including hilarious run-ins with some clothes thieves and a train. You cannot accuse Jennifer Lawrence of holding anything back.
No Hard Feelings also gets a lot of mileage from bringing those 1999-2004 movies into the present day. In a glorious scene, the best in the movie, Maddie invites herself to one of Percy’s Princeton gatherings. It turns out to be a culture clash, as Maddie soon realises that college life isn’t American Pie anymore. Everything is caught on camera, everyone is socially aware, and ‘nobody is having sex anymore’ as she puts it. It’s a microcosm of the entire movie, as a relic from the nineties is transposed onto the modern day and doesn’t quite fit.
A fair amount of steam is lost in the last act, mostly because No Hard Feelings has some motions to go through. Maddie was always going to be found out. Her and Percy were always going to have feelings for each other, which the revelation would utterly destroy. We’re sure that No Hard Feelings would have loved to disrupt these moments and do something different, but there’s no way out. The result is a little bit of by-the-numbers plotting, and the result is a final half-hour that sags. No Hard Feelings indeed.
But we’re mostly just happy that there’s a bonafide, unapologetic comedy out there. It’s a genuine joy to be blindsided by rude, controversial comedy, as well as chuckle at this high of a hit-rate. We didn’t expect it from Jennifer Lawrence, who is clearly up for a comedy role that’s about a hundred acres away from what she normally does. She’s got the chops for it, and puts in a performance that shows how truly talented she is.
If you’re like us, and you’re pining for the days of broad, silly comedies, then No Hard Feelings will feel like a long lost friend. It’s not big, it’s not clever, and it’s got a last act that’s as unsurprising as they come. But it’ll also get you spraying tea out of your nose, and we’ve missed those feelings, hard or not, from modern comedies.