Nicole Holofcener’s abilities are such that, even when her movies bleed past the edges of reality and into zany sitcom conversations—where people explain, in grandiose speeches, exactly what they’re feeling and how it’s thematically related to everything else going on—there’s still something human inside it all. Even when jokes don’t land, their formation feels organic to the situation and characters. It might not make her latest film a particularly strong entry into her body of work, but always reminds you of her talent. You Hurt My Feelings, which confronts middle-aged neuroses and creative anxieties with all the subtlety of a bestselling author with a new Twitter account, still finds warmth amid its middling dramedy.
Leads Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies, playing lived-in, loving couple Beth and Don, are both the unfortunate mouthpieces for much of this over-precise musing and the keen presences making it all the more tolerable. They, and everyone around them, are devastatingly defined as New Yorkers. Beth is a washed-up memoirist half-heartedly teaching at The New School. Don is an increasingly distracted therapist. Their son (Owen Teague) is an aspiring playwright who works at a weed dispensary, while Beth’s interior designer sister (Michaela Watkins) and actor brother-in-law (Arian Moayed) are facing career crises of their own. Everyone’s brimming with self-doubt and doesn’t have much going on besides their jobs.
Naturally, the thing to do is turn the self-esteem screws on this professionally obsessed enclave: Through a silly piece of contrived eavesdropping, Beth learns that otherwise supportive Don doesn’t like her new novel. In fact, he hates it. Truly, what could be more devastating?
It’s a problem of Seinfeldian proportions. The post-dumping diner conversation writes itself. But while it mines that obvious vein for a bit, You Hurt My Feelings also finds harmless, soft charm in the excessive reactions that unfurl from all the characters, ones not connected necessarily by a sharply designed plot or from the instigating event operating as an emotional catalyst, but connected by mere inevitability. These ego blows are less dominos falling in a line and more bumper cars colliding in an arena designed for disappointment. If you live your life like this, Holofcener argues, you’re asking for it.
More than Louis-Dreyfus, who’s still as funny as ever, it’s Menzies who embodies this middleweight bummer of a worldview. Distracted at work, burned out by other people’s problems and constantly asked to be the first-read fan for his wife, Don is wilting. Menzies radiates warmth like a dented space heater, apologetic but still chugging along with a half-smile. He loses track of whose client’s fathers are dead, and whose were abusive. He wonders if he should get Botox. It’s not that he and Beth’s banter is so witty—in fact, it’s most enjoyable when Holofcener scales back the jokes and lets her talented couple find the humor between the lines—but that they sell their quiet, cute, secure relationship so deeply that any wave rocking the boat feels seismic.
But funniest are Don’s patients, who get to discard all pretense and simply be punchlines. Amber Tamblyn and David Cross steal each of their scenes as a venomously warring couple, one who eventually finds a common enemy in their unhelpful analyst. Even these funny oases eventually fade, or are obscured with other meandering and oddly structured subplots (like one with Beth’s mother, played by Jeannie Berlin), in favor of familiar Life Of A Creative navelgazing. What does it mean to support someone in their endeavors? Is your blind eye towards their weaknesses loving, or cruel in the long run? Teague is stuck with the most stilted material in this vein, confronting his parents like he’s reading off a teleprompter. But even if he was somehow able to sell such trite material, it’d simply be hitting a nail on the head with a more delicate hammer.
You Hurt My Feelings is a film built for parents, ones whispering to each other about the work Louis-Dreyfus has had done before being silenced by her own undercutting joke about her immovable forehead. It’s inoffensive, often warm, and unabashedly adult—for that market, it doesn’t need much more going for it. But it’s also so strong in its creation of this convivial atmosphere (somewhere between High Maintenance and a more palatable episode of Girls) that its eventual laser focus on its lesson feels like a minor betrayal. But at least I’m not sugarcoating things to make it feel better, right?
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Writer: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Owen Teague, Arian Moayed, Jeannie Berlin
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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