Lawrence plays a Montauk Uber driver hired to take a 19-year-old’s virginity in a satire of the safe-space generation that’s mostly a big tease.
In recent years, as the romantic comedy has done a slow fade-out from the big screen, it often seems to have taken sex right along with it. Maybe that accounts for the extraordinary interest sparked by the trailer for — and media coverage of — “No Hard Feelings,” a sort of romantic comedy about a 32-year-old out-of-work Uber driver, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who gets involved with a gawky 19-year-old virgin geek who’s about to enter Princeton.
There’s been some moralistic pearl-clutching over the trailer, though probably for the very same reason that the movie could connect: It looks a little pervy. Yet when you see “No Hard Feelings,” you realize that the film’s promise of risky business is little more than a big tease.
Lawrence’s Maddie is an underachiever who grew up in Montauk, the picturesque sea village at the tip of Long Island, and never left. An unapologetic and at times combative hedonist, with a pattern of dating men for a few months only to ghost them, she lives in the house she inherited from her mother.
It’s all paid off, but she’s going to lose the place unless she can keep up with the escalating property taxes — and to do that she needs her Uber job, which is going to be a problem, since her car just got repossessed (with one of her exes, played by “The Bear’s” Ebon Moss-Bachrach, doing the towing).
Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) is the aforementioned 19-year-old, whose wealthy parents (Matthew Broderick, smug in long gray boomer hair, and Laura Benanti) have a summer home in Montauk, and it seems they’ve devoted their lives to overprotecting him. They’re helicopter perfectionists who track his every move, have the passcode to his phone, and have made sure that his entire existence exemplifies the safe-space generation.
The result? Percy is a morose loner with no friends, who doesn’t drive or drink or do anything fun, and is getting ready to ship off to college as a monkish arrested-development case.
So his desperate folks place an ad. They’re looking for a woman in her early-to-mid-20s who can hang out with Percy, go on dates with him, and take his virginity. They see it all as college prep.
Since the reward they’re offering for popping Percy’s cherry is a Buick Regal, the situation lines up rather perfectly with Maddie’s need for a car. True, she’s a little older than the woman they’re looking for, but according to the film’s logic that just makes her a more knowing erotic tutor.
As an actor, Jennifer Lawrence radiates pride, sensuality, and a glowing belief in herself, and I didn’t buy for a moment that her Maddie would sign on to sleeping with some kid all to gain access to a car, so that she could rejoin the gig economy, because otherwise her beloved house will go poof! But watching “No Hard Feelings,” you sort of roll with it, because the director and co-screenwriter, Gene Stupnisky (“Good Boys”), works with a confectionary skill that tugs you along, because in spirit it’s just a rom-com (a form not meant to pass the plausibility test), and because Lawrence, acting with a brazen theatrical sexiness that allows her to wink at the audience at how adeptly she can turn it off and on, and newcomer Andrew Barth Feldman, who’s like Mike White crossed with the pale son of Seth Meyers crossed with an amoeba, turns out to be a winning actor.
The two characters meet when Maddie, faking everything she says, stops into the animal shelter where Percy is working as a volunteer. She’s wearing a skin-tight raspberry mini-dress and strappy gold platform heels, and her every line about adopting a dog is an aggressive double entendre.
The joke is that it all falls on deaf ears; Percy does not appear to be a kid with an inner dog. In fact, “No Hard Feelings” does such a good job of establishing that Maggie’s sex-bomb exhibitionism is all theater, done from pure opportunism, and that Percy has no hormonal response to it, that the film effectively defangs any possible romantic or erotic danger from either side. It’s like “Risky Business” restaged as low-risk management.
For a while, Maddie tries to goad Percy into finding his inner wild boy. At a bar, she orders him a Long Island Ice Tea (which he thinks tastes like bad ice tea), and at the beach she coerces him into a nude midnight ocean swim, an adventure cut short when some rude kids decide to steal their clothes.
The scene that follows, in which Maddie runs out of the ocean and engages them in physical combat, all while she herself remains totally full-frontal naked, plays as a weird piece of exploitation. It was completely unnecessary to film Lawrence in that way, apart from someone’s calculation about how much it would add to the film’s box-office take. But to demonstrate that the movie is practicing equal-opportunity nudity, Percy winds up naked on the hood of a speeding car, in a scene that feels like it would kill to be taking place in a junk teen comedy of the ’80s.
Here’s the difference. “No Hard Feelings” is the first Hollywood comedy about a teenager losing his virginity in which the teenager in question has no apparent desire to lose his virginity. So where does that leave Maddie and Percy? Their relationship is not, in any real way, sexual (though they do have one brief encounter), or even romantic.
But Percy blossoms under her gaze, and for a while that’s compelling, especially when you don’t know where the movie is going. When Percy comes out of his shell enough to sit down at the piano in a fancy restaurant and serenade the patrons with a cocktail-lounge rendition of Hall and Oates’ “Manhunter,” or when Maddie crashes a party of Princeton preppies, only to discover that she’s even older than she thinks she is, the movie generates a bit of frisson.
Somehow, though, it doesn’t come to much. The script of “No Hard Feelings” creates its own safe space, designed to do little more than let Maddie and Percy form a friendship in which they Help Each Other Grow. Jokes about finger traps, the spraying of mace, and a dog that likes cocaine are all less funny than examples of the movie trying too hard.
Lawrence is looser and more rambunctious than she’s been in any film since “American Hustle,” and Feldman never seems less than an authentic 19-year-old. This young actor has presence, and an earnestness that makes it feel like he’s beyond fakery. But that works for the movie and against it. For all its handwringing about Generation Safe, “No Hard Feelings” presents Percy as a naïve and anxious but basically ordinary teenager who doesn’t really need to do anything but grow up on his own terms. It’s the film that’s trying to whoosh him forward. On some level it wants him to be as concocted as the situation in which he finds himself.