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Nicole Holofcener continues to display an impeccable ear for dialogue—the things people say, the things we wish we’d said, the things we’d like to take back—with “You Hurt My Feelings.”
Her depiction of a literary and artsy existence in New York City is specific and detailed, yet the human truths she reveals are universal and relatable. And as always, she draws witty and deeply authentic performances from her actors, particularly her star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Reteaming nearly a decade after the romantic comedy “Enough Said,” the writer/director and actress genuinely seem to be on one another’s wavelength again. Holofcener evokes the understated, emotionally raw work from Louis-Dreyfus that we haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s a joy to watch the “Seinfeld” and “Veep” star operating in a different key without losing any of her comic timing or instincts.
The problems at the center of “You Hurt My Feelings” may seem insignificant from the outside, but when they happen to you, they’re seismic. In particular, she vividly depicts the insecurity creative people experience when offering something personal to the world. We’re exposing ourselves, and we’re inviting criticism. It’s certainly a subject Holofcener knows well after 30 years of making movies. But she also taps into a broader topic in our tendency to withhold brutal honesty to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or perhaps steer clear of the awkwardness of confrontation. How many times have you told a friend or loved one you liked their new haircut, or that meal they cooked was delicious, or those jeans don’t make their butt look big? It’s just easier. It seems harmless.
“You Hurt My Feelings” explores what might happen if we learned what others really thought about us—when people stop being polite and start getting real. And besides Louis-Dreyfus, it features a murderer’s row of supporting players doing stellar work, including several “Succession” cast members.
Beth is a novelist and writing professor at The New School who’s just finished her latest book. As she anxiously awaits feedback from her agent, she confides her worries to her ever-supportive therapist husband, Don (a lovely Tobias Menzies). But when she overhears him telling someone he actually thinks her new novel is terrible, she’s understandably shattered. Louis-Dreyfus finds such a tricky balance in how she plays this moment: There’s humor in it, for sure, because it’s such an uncomfortable situation, but she also conveys the deep hurt Beth is feeling inside. Decades of trust get obliterated with a few words in seconds. It’s a lot to juggle emotionally.
In an inspired bit of casting, Michaela Watkins plays Beth’s younger sister, Sarah. (Watkins also has my favorite line in the whole movie, a tossed-off aside after eating a Mister Softee ice cream cone: “Well, that wasn’t worth it.”) She’s sympathetic but pragmatic about Beth’s painful realization: Everyone does this, she says. We all tell these little lies in the name of kindness. When her actor husband (a terrific Arian Moayed) asks how his latest performance was, she always tells him he was great, whether he was or not. In an amusing running bit, Sarah, an interior designer, keeps suggesting lighting fixtures for her latest client, who politely but firmly indicates that she hates them every time.
Holofcener portrays the extreme opposite of the instinct to be polite through a hilarious series of therapy sessions Don has with a miserable married couple, played by real-life husband and wife David Cross and Amber Tamblyn. The cruelly blunt way they talk to each other isn’t the right answer, either. Neither is the passive-aggressive judgement and nagging of Beth and Sarah’s mother, played by the distinctively sharp Jeannie Berlin.
As she’s done consistently throughout her films, including “Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends with Money,” and “Please Give,” Holofcener finds both humor and wisdom within the complexity of her cringe comedy, providing rich fodder for conversations afterward. If anything, “You Hurt My Feelings” might be a little too short; it’s so well-paced and engrossing it just zips by. The moral of the story seems to be: Honesty is better in the long term, even if it’s unpleasant immediately. But in Holofcener’s films, as in real life, that’s not so simple.
In theaters now.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Beth
Tobias Menzies as Don
Michaela Watkins as Sarah
Arian Moayed as Mark
Owen Teague as Eliot
Jeannie Berlin as Georgia
Amber Tamblyn as Carolyn
David Cross as Jonathan
Spike Einbinder as April
Zach Cherry as Jim
Sarah Steele as Frankie
LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Sylvia
Sunita Mani as Dr. Allen