Even within the world of American independent filmmaking, there’s something endearingly out-of-step about the films of Nicole Holofcener. Warm and chatty when angst and calling card flash are largely the coin of the realm; unapologetically homogeneous and wryly observant of class and privilege from the inside looking out when diversity and outsider voices are being prioritized; proudly influenced by the films of Woody Allen, when most filmmakers would rather pretend he never existed. There was a time, not so long ago, when seemingly most of what came out of Sundance reflected something like that description, but presently it feels like Holofcener has a lane almost all to herself. True to form, her new film, You Hurt My Feelings, is about the anxieties and insecurities of upper middle-class, middle-aged New Yorkers who, for all their professional success, find their sense of personal worth and emotional well-being hanging by a thread. The setting may be insular, the characters self-absorbed, but in its observations of relationships and the fickle nature of happiness, Holofcener’s latest feels universal. Specifically, the idea that the world runs on little white lies and the elision of painful truths whenever feasible.
Reuniting with her Enough Said director, Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Beth, a creative writing professor and author who’s attempting to follow up a critically acclaimed memoir with her first novel. Her unerringly supportive husband, Don (Tobias Menzies of The Crown), is a therapist who’s begun to ponder whether he might be happier if he went ahead and got plastic surgery to fix his crow’s feet. Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), is an interior decorator who muses that the world is ending and spends her days shopping for “cashmere-lined walls” and garish light fixtures to appease indecisive yuppies. Both Beth and Sarah volunteer at a local church overseeing a clothing drive for the homeless as a sort of do-gooder contrition for how much the universe has lined up behind them (a recurring theme in Holofcener’s work, having previously been the subject of Please Give). While out running errands, the two women stumble upon Don and Beth’s husband, Mark (Succession actor Arian Moayed), shopping for designer socks and eavesdrop on their private conversation, learning Don’s most shameful secret, which shakes Beth to her very core: all this time, he’s only been pretending to like her new book.
As sins go, it’s decidedly venial, and one could argue even compassionate at its core. Yet the implications are deeply wounding to Beth, eroding confidence in herself as well as trust in her husband. Sneaking away to avoid a confrontation, Beth wanders home in a daze, silently nursing her bruised ego — the film is a masterclass in conveying uncomfortable body language and physical distance between its characters, saying everything we need to know about where things stand simply in the way people resituate themselves on a couch — while the film goes on to explore the myriad small ways people hold their tongues or tell pleasant half-truths to spare themselves awkwardness or the feelings of someone else. Through a series of comedic exchanges that take us from Mark’s flailing acting career to Don’s practice — real life couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn are cast as a contentious couple who have an unorthodox proposal to redress their frustration with years of therapy — to the home of Beth’s mother (Jeannie Berlin, an inspired choice to play the woman who birthed Louis-Dreyfus and Watkins), You Hurt My Feelings interrogates the entire notion of being unsparingly candid in your day-to-day life and whether supporting someone’s choices, even when you disagree with them, is ultimately a sign of love or merely self-preservation.
Having honed her craft over decades in some of TV’s squirmiest comedies, there is no one better suited for this material than Louis-Dreyfus. In her scenes with Don, Beth gets to passive-aggressively seeth, registering a thousand needle pricks everytime he gives her a now transparently dishonest compliment about her book. It’s the rare film where vocalizing an affirmation is treated as a blistering verbal assault. Louis-Dreyfus and Menzies have a wonderfully unforced chemistry with one another, particularly in the film’s earlier scenes; fully at ease in their banter and domestic routines, like their tendency to share food off of one another’s plates, much to the disgust of their post-grad son, Eliot (Owen Teague). They bounce their fears off of one another — in addition to worrying that he’s starting to look old, Don questions whether he’s even a good therapist — picking each other up when they’re down. But, as he rightly points out, Beth doesn’t actually know whether he’s exceptional at his job yet, she falls into the practiced habit of telling him he is anyway. And is Don’s compartmentalization of his own personal feelings to champion Beth’s work really any different than her own blind encouragement of Eliot’s nascent writing career, merely assuming he’s talented in his own right based on scant evidence (a point the film is, perhaps, a little too emphatic in making)?
Holofcener treats all of this as a neurotic comedy of manners, taking a magnifying glass to every strained interaction or perceived slight and luxuriating in the discomfort. No complaint mumbled under someone’s breath goes unnoticed, no small demonstration of vulnerability too mortifying or beyond detection. Beth’s repeatedly reminded that her memoir of verbal abuse at the hands of her domineering father didn’t sell especially well, leading her to flippantly grumble (to her own mother, no less) that it might have sold more units if she was physically abused as well. She frequents book shops where she pulls copies of her memoir off the shelves and places them prominently on the bestseller table, a would-be covert mission the film makes a point of showing has been observed by the store’s amused employees (there’s also a fantastic running gag where Beth observes effusive praise for a new author emblazoned on a book jacket, only to contrast it with the more measured blurbs on her own work). You Hurt My Feelings allows us to see these people at their lowest and most self-centered, while still maintaining their basic decency and compassion for one another; it’s uncomfortable precisely because these characters are so likable and their foibles so recognizable. The filmmaking itself isn’t quite as elegant, functional and perhaps allowing for too many subplots to build around its central theme, but observations on human weakness and the virtues of insincerity are all smartly rendered. It’s as if the film were a cozy sweater in a slightly unflattering color — although one might be inclined to keep the second part to themselves.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.