Moving Pictures
Jun 23, 2023, 06:27AM

Time Heals All Fractures

Past Lives and No Hard Feelings, two very different kinds of romances out this weekend.

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Our love lives are often beholden to circumstances, coincidences and luck. On one night in the summer of 2004, I went to go see my friend’s brother’s band, and that night my friend first broached the subject of introducing me to a friend of hers, who’s now my wife. If I hadn’t gone that night, I’d probably have a different wife, and be living in a different state.

The astounding new A24 drama Past Lives is based on that general notion. Written and directed by Celine Song, it’s a story about a woman and her two suitors, although it’s an unusual Hollywood love triangle story. Sort of like another A24 triumph, Moonlight, Past Lives has three acts set in three different time periods. The film begins in South Korea, where Na Young and Hae Sung are pre-teens who enjoy an innocent flirtation, one that ends abruptly when Na Young and her family emigrate to Canada. A dozen years later, Na Young—now a grad student and aspiring playwright in New York going by “Nora” and played by Greta Lee—reconnects with Hae Sung (Teo Woo) via Facebook and Skype. After speaking every day for months, they realize they can’t see each other and stop speaking.

After another 12 years, Nora’s a successful playwright, married to a novelist (John Maggro) when Hae Sung comes to New York for a visit. The film balances all of these awkward elements masterfully, while also delving into Nora’s identity as a Korean-American, and how a visit from her old South Korean friend makes her feel about her multi-faceted identity. It’s all beautifully symmetrical—they’re 12 at the beginning, 12 years pass, and then 12 more. There are several elements that recall Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, including a couple of long scenes of a man and woman walking and talking. But at no point does the story collapse into cliche.

Past Lives has one scene set in Montauk, on Long Island, and the moment it’s mentioned, Nora immediately invokes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another stylish romance about love and fate, which set its climax in that particular hamlet.

Another romance this week is set entirely in Montauk, even if it was filmed in Nassau County. That’s No Hard Feelings, which stars Jennifer Lawrence in a hard-R-rated romantic comedy of the type that rarely gets made by studios these days. The film’s frequently hilarious, sporting a half-dozen outstanding comedic set-pieces. Lawrence has always been funny in interviews, often hinting at a ribald sense of humor, so she’s a natural in her first full-on comedy, as well as the first studio movie lead role she’s played in several years.

However, much like so many previous films from the heyday of raunchy studio comedies, No Hard Feelings runs out of comedic momentum ahead of the third act, where the plot takes over and the laughs mostly disappear. Also, No Hard Feelings has the same lesson that every Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow movie has, which is that the immature hero/heroine must learn to act their age and grow up. Lawrence plays Maddie, an aimless 32-year-old who lives in Montauk, works as a bartender and Uber driver, and seems to be ex-girlfriend to half the town. After her car gets repossessed, naturally by one of her exes (The Bear’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach), she needs cash to pay a property tax bill.

She answers a Craigslist ad from a wealthy couple (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti), who are looking for a woman to “date” their awkward, 19-year-old son Percy (Broadway actor Andrew Barth Feldman), before he heads off to Princeton. In exchange, the car-less Maddie gets the title to their vintage Buick.

They “date,” which mostly consists of Maddie being sexually forward and Percy recoiling in nervousness, although eventually the plot settles into a rhythm. The laughs come early and often, at least until the movie inevitably is about lessons and learning. There’s little in the way of actual sex, but there’s an uproarious nude fight that recalls the shower room brawl in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. No Hard Feelings was directed by Gene Stupnitsky, a longtime writer for The Office who previously co-directed another raunchy studio comedy, 2019’s Good Boys. That was the story of a bunch of  curious sixth-graders that wasn’t as controversial as I thought it’d be.

This film’s plot has tripped a lot of modern “problematic” wires, and the early reactions are split between prudish age-gap scolds and comic book bros who decided years ago that they hate Lawrence for reasons that I’m not interested in remembering. It’s one of those “movies that could never made today,” except that it was made, today.

I’d love to hear the details of whatever product placement deal the production worked out with General Motors, which must’ve required that they establish old Buicks as basically indestructible.


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