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Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman in No Hard Feelings.
Bad education … Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman in No Hard Feelings. Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy
Bad education … Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman in No Hard Feelings. Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy

No Hard Feelings review – Jennifer Lawrence comedy plays sex work for laughs

This age-gap story – Lawrence has to seduce a teenage virgin boy to get a free car – refuses to make bought sex anything resembling an issue

Comedy, like sex work, is real work and both can have a tough time gaining acceptance in the respectable world, so it’s a pleasure to find a comedy about bought sex that’s pretty funny – and funnier than the pun in the title might suggest. Gene Stupnitsky co-wrote and directed the amusing bad-taste romp Good Boys, and now he gives us another age-gap comedy about a very unsentimental education.

The scene is Montauk in New York state, famously the location for TV series The Affair. Jennifer Lawrence plays Maddie, a woman in her early 30s who has been unlucky in love, who still lives in her childhood home, all alone since the death of her mother and not much idea about what to do with her life. She scratches a living as an Uber driver, but her car gets repossessed for non-payment of Montauk’s exorbitant property taxes on a house which she stubbornly won’t rent or sell to the arrogant tourist incomers who are pricing locals like her out of the neighbourhood.

Maddie’s best friends, surfer-dude Jim (Scott MacArthur) and his pregnant partner Sara (Natalie Morales), point out an interesting opening advertised on Craigslist. A wealthy, painfully liberal couple, Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti) are offering a free car to a woman who can “date” their intensely shy and virginal 19-year-old son, a brilliant musician who is going to Princeton in the fall; they are scared that without experience, college is going to be just too traumatic for him. With her usual robust frankness, Maddie interviews for the job and brusquely sets out to seduce tremulous young Percy, played by Andrew Barth Feldman. She impatiently wants to get this whiny kid’s cherry popped and then get the car. But of course it isn’t as simple as that.

This screenplay may well have been conceived before Craigslist banned dodgy hook-up ads a few years ago, but the film’s reluctance to make bought sex anything resembling an issue is very contemporary. It means that there is no comic or dramatic traction from the arrangement itself being supposedly wrong, other than the parents’ sneakiness in not telling Percy that they were behind it. It is not aiming for transgressive or outrageous bad taste – as in, say, the Stifler-mom scenes from American Pie a generation ago – nor any final emotional reckoning for Maddie who is never called upon to regret her Faustian bargain.

The movie cheerfully gets on with its high-concept premise, but this just gives a slight sheen or glaze of unreality to the proceedings. Maddie and Percy’s relationship is not as plausible as that of Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, however studiedly bizarre that was. And for pure age-gap craziness, we can always look up Jennifer Lawrence’s legendary encounter with Jack Nicholson on Oscar night in 2013.

But there are some great scenes, chiefly one in which Maddie, stark naked, comes up to some bullies on the beach who have stolen her clothes while she and Percy were skinny dipping and proceeds to beat them up. There is also Maddie’s generational dismay in crashing a high-school party to confront Percy after an argument. It shows what a comedy turn Lawrence can still be.

No Hard Feelings is released on 21 June in the UK, 22 June in Australia and 23 June in the US.

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