No Hard Feelings, Jennifer Lawrence’s latest film, feels like something of a rarity in this box office climate. It’s a comedy that is not based on any previous IP, that goes for its hard-R rating with the gusto. Instead of being dumped on a streaming service—which is the fate of so many movies like this these days—it is in theaters, riding on the power of its Oscar-winning star, who is making her debut in the genre.
No Hard Feelings centers on Maddie, a 32 year-old Montauk native, burdened by enormous property taxes on the house she grew up in with her now deceased mom, who loses her car to repossession. That cuts off one of her main sources of income as an Uber driver for the rich vacationers who descend on the Hamptons town for the summer. And then she encounters an ad placed by an ostentatiously privileged couple (Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick): They’ll offer a car to any woman who will “date”—read: have sex—with Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), their painfully shy 19-year-old son, who they’d like to see come out of his shell before heading off to Princeton in the fall.
Director Gene Stupnitsky and his co-writer John Phillips designed the protagonist with Lawrence in mind. Stupnitsky had first pitched the premise—which is based on a real life ad!—to Lawrence over a combined eight martinis. Her reaction, as Stupnitsky recalls, was receptive, as she said: “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Quentin Tarantino: ‘I’d love to read the script.'” Four years later, Stupnitsky came back to her with the screenplay, at which point Lawrence told him she was in, but she was pregnant so the project would have to be delayed a little bit longer.
It was worth the wait. Lawrence may be new to comedy, but she was made for this. Just as Maddie throws herself at the task of seducing Percy, Lawrence fully commits to everything a movie that draws its essence from the Will Ferrell-Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn regime asks of her: She pratfalls, does embarrassing dances, gets hosed down, and at one point beats on some people, fully naked.
It’s the standout scene of the film, both for how ridiculous it is and how surprisingly game Lawrence had to be to do it. Early into her seduction attempts, Maddie convinces Percy to go skinny dipping. At first, Stupnitsky shoots Lawrence tastefully from the neck up and behind. His intention was to make the audience think they weren’t going to see anything of note. And then when some obnoxious jerks steal Maddie and Percy’s clothes off of the beach she goes barreling out of the sea like an angry siren, to stop them, baring it all while throwing elbows. “It’s almost like the audience is punished for seeing her naked,” Stupnitsky says. “There’s nothing sexy about the nudity. It’s all pure rage and violence. And I think that’s what makes it funny.” (And, yes, it is all Lawrence, save for one shot featuring a body double who performed a suplex.)
Still, No Hard Feelings, like a lot of raunch coms, actually has a lot of heart in its depiction of two emotionally stunted people connecting. “I didn’t even really think of it as a sex comedy, which may sound odd,” Stupnitsky says. “I thought it was more of a relationship comedy about these two people and their dynamic.”
But Stupnitsky and co-writer John Phillips also found another way to deepen the material beyond focusing on the developing friendship between Maddie and Percy. Setting the story in Montauk, they also located a class angle. During the early days of the pandemic, Stupnitsky honed in on stories of the wealthy leaving cities and relocating to their second homes in small towns. “It kind of upset the balance of that ecosystem,” he says. He found that dynamic interesting, and refined in the context of this story once Phillips suggested that Percy had helicopter parents who have paid to micromanage every element of their son’s existence.
Maddie, meanwhile, is a local who resents the influx of rich people—of which Percy is one—on both superficial and deep emotional levels. Not only are these interlopers making the place she has spent her entire life more expensive, the script also ultimately reveals that her father was a man who had an affair with her mother one summer and then bailed. “There’s a disposability to that kind of attitude,” Stupnitsky says.
The director adds that he didn’t want the political thread to “overwhelm” the movie, but liked that it gave it some gravitas. On top of that, the social context makes the viewer understand Maddie’s anger—the kind of fury that will make her storm out of the sea bare-assed and beat down on some out-of-towners who think it’s funny to take clothing off the beach.
The moment, however, also feels in keeping with Lawrence’s star persona. “I don’t think Jen’s a menace necessarily,” Stupnitsky says. “But there’s an unpredictability to her. I mean, you’ve seen her do interviews. She must be a publicist’s nightmare because she’ll just say anything and she cannot be controlled. And that’s why we love her.”
“I think she believes she can probably beat me up,” Stupnitsky adds. “If I let her, she would probably try and fight me.”