Successful novelist Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her husband Don (Tobias Menzies), a therapist, share everything. Annoyingly so, or at least to their son Eliot (Owen Teague), who works at a weed dispensary in their Upper West Side neighborhood. Eliot hates that Beth and Don share one another’s meals at lunch, and dare to eat from the same ice cream cone. They’re just happy. They seem to have the perfect marriage. “SEEM” is the operative word, because there’s a serious communication breakdown that’s about to occur in Nicole Holofcener’s latest comedy, You Hurt My Feelings.
Anyone who has lived the married life knows that nothing is ever quite as happy as it seems. Beth’s second book was rejected by her publisher, and she’s struggling with her abilities as a writer. And Don, while he appears to be the pillar of calm and reason, actually might be a pretty terrible therapist. He certainly can’t help the squabbling couple (played by comic champs David Cross and Amber Tamblyn, both great) he’s been seeing for years, and another patient mumbles his displeasure at the end of every session. He offers little in actual advice and insight, leaving his patients in the same place they’ve always been. And as for Eliot, he’s also attempting to be a writer just like his mom, but he’s also adrift since leaving school.
But at home, things are about to get a lot worse. Beth and her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) accidentally overhear Don telling Sarah’s husband Mark (Arian Moayed) that he doesn’t really like her new book. From that moment on, a trust has been shattered. Don, like any spouse would, has given her tons of encouragement and read multiple drafts. He’s always said the right thing.
Holofcener is exploring the way people who love one another communicate and support each other. Do you do it with complete honesty, even if that truth might hurt? Or do you encourage and bolster that person’s confidence so they believe in their best self? And there are no easy answers. Perhaps pulling from her own experiences as a filmmaker and writer, Holofcener doesn’t shy away from the hurt that a few words can bring to a creative person. It’s actually quite a balancing act that Holofcener is trying to pull off. The comedy is spot-on and there are more quotable lines here than in any Holofcener film that I can imagine (My favorite “Are we dead yet? You carry around TUMS in your purse??”). But the fallout is actually quite serious, and Beth is genuinely destroyed by losing trust in the one person she felt she could count on.
Fortunately, Holofcener has Louis-Dreyfus to rely on. A reunion following 2013’s Enough Said, Louis-Dreyfus and Holofcener speak the same comedy language and they speak it fluently. This is a film that relies on subtle gestures and physical humor alike, both of which Louis-Dreyfus is a master of. In an early scene, Don gives Beth an anniversary gift of leaf-shaped earrings and the look of phony appreciation she gives is just too delicious. Louis-Dreyfus is just such a terrific actor that Beth’s breakdown moments will tear you apart, as well. Is she being a bit hard on Don for doing what any supportive partner would do? Sure, but we can see her side of things, too. It does feel that Louis-Dreyfus is missing a co-star who can be as much of a presence as she is. The late James Gandolfini, who she paired so wonderfully with in Enough Said, would have been perfect here.
You Hurt My Feelings is overloaded with comic talent. Along with Louis-Dreyfus and the aforementioned Cross and Tamblyn, you’ve also got the great Jeannie Berlin as Beth and Sarah’s mother. She drives them crazy but we can also see where they get their various neuroses from. Menzies is also solid as Don, whose concerns about aging and being a bad therapist get overshadowed a little bit.
Holofcener has also improved greatly at telling stories that can appeal to a wider audience. Sure, her films continue to be about privileged white people and what would amount to minor concerns for most people, but she’s gotten better at creating characters that everyone can relate to in some way. And we all like to feel that the person we love has our back, although if everyone was honest all of the time, a movie like You Hurt My Feelings wouldn’t exist and we don’t want that.