Monday, June 26, 2023


Jennifer Lawrence is a Movie Star. If a dozen years of good performances in all sorts of genres, including anchoring the Hunger Games franchise and her multiple trips to the Oscars weren’t enough to prove that, here’s a new strong piece of evidence. In No Hard Feelings, she takes a character that’s slightly ridiculous, in a plot that’s a bit of a stretch, in a screenplay that’s a little undercooked, and filmed in a generic style, and edited to just-the-plot functionality, and easily commands the screen every step of the way. She makes the movie worth seeing. Now that’s a star. She lifts the familiar and the awkward into something entertaining, and even finds some honest sentiment in it all.

Her character is a struggling Uber driver who gets her car repossessed, so she answers an ad placed by a wealthy couple (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) who want a young woman to date their shy 19-year-old son (Andrew Barth Feldman) and “bring him out of his shell” before he heads off to college. If she can successfully seduce him, she’ll get a car. He can’t find out about the arrangement, of course. (Guess what’ll happen about an hour later?) The concept clunks and clanks as it falls into place, but Lawrence dances effortlessly across the lumpy writing and polishes every scene until it’s entertaining. Consider this exchange, in her job interview:

“I just turned 29. Last year.”
“So you’re 29?”
“Last year."
“And how old are you right now?”

Lawrence makes lines like that sparkle with a blend of obvious half-joking deception and self-effacing sarcasm. At first, her character—though teetering on the edge of desperation—comes on way too strong, a broad burlesque of feminine wiles that purposely falls totally flat, wriggling in tight dresses and leaning into obvious innuendo. It’s only when she stops trying that something softens up inside her and she can’t quite bring herself to break the boy’s heart. Lawerence sells both aspects, a quick witted desperation turning into flailing false seductiveness becoming something low-key real and charming. She elevates the material with a quicksilver timing—when told the boy’s going to Princeton, she nods and deadpans “heard of it”—that surfaces class consciousness and real connection alike.

That the movie never quite becomes a hard-edged romantic comedy is for the better. Her boyish co-star is an endearing dork we might actually care about. His awkward charms and slow-thawing shyness are played real, and not judged. But what is judged is his cocoon of privilege. The movie’s dancing a tricky line there, and it’s Lawrence’s generous, and generally real, interplay with his insecurities and ignorance alike that makes a fine counterweight to all the ways these scenes could be played wrong. She makes it almost believable this over-the-top comic premise might leave these characters slightly better people by the end. Even when the movie takes an idea to excess—neither ostensibly comedic scene of clinging to the roof of a speeding car works, though the nude fight scene is a so-bold-it’s-funny total commitment to a bit—the filmmakers are lucky they have their star just barely holding the whole picture together.

I couldn’t quite believe that I was nostalgic for this sort of movie. Here’s an R-rated relationship comedy shaggily assembled and thinly plotted, perched entirely on the charisma of its famous lead and the general likability of its supporting cast. Ten or fifteen years ago this would’ve been par for the course—every few months you could expect one or two just like it. Now, though, when the big screen is often missing Movie Star personality pictures, not to mention comedies without guns or fantasy conceits, a movie like this is a breath of fresh air. How nice to see a movie in which the only real failing is its occasional preposterousness of behavior and some formulaic plotting. At least it’s the kind of preposterousness that’s trying to entertain at a human scale, and the formulas are old enough to feel like long-lost friends. Oh, here’s where she develops real feelings for the mark. Ah, here’s the moment when the secret’s revealed. Oh, here’s the reconciliation. How nice. That such sweetness can emerge from a filthy concept is not news, but here director and co-writer Gene Stupnitsky (in a vast improvement on his painfully awkward Good Boys) makes it feel fresh enough just by letting it happen again. It helps that he trusts entirely in Lawrence’s star power to elevate everything around her. She sure does.

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