Critics who have called Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings a comedy about a trivial subject (or, in a reference to star Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ breakthrough role on Seinfeld, “a movie about nothing”) must be more secure human beings than I. The quandary of Louis-Dreyfus’ Beth, a teacher of creative writing who has just finished her second book, strikes me as eminently (to redeploy another Seinfeld-ism) film-worthy. After she overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) tell their brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed) that he has only been pretending to like his wife’s new novel, Beth goes through a crisis that’s personal and professional at the same time. How long has he been pretending he thinks her work is good? Is it any good? Does it matter?
Beth and Don’s marriage, previously so close that their 23-year-old son Eliot (Owen Teague) complained of feeling like a third wheel, becomes strained, and Don’s own work crisis intensifies: He’s a psychotherapist whose clients are losing their patience with his failure to offer useful advice. It’s not altogether clear whether the clients (including a hilarious pair of insult-trading spouses, played by the real-life couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) are being unrealistically demanding or whether Don’s long-suppressed job burnout has just turned him into a terrible listener. Beth’s sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) has also been feeling disenchanted with her work as an interior designer for the super-wealthy, while her actor husband (Moayed) is considering giving up on his career after a spell of dispiriting setbacks.
More than the study of a single character, You Hurt My Feelings is a chamber piece about a quartet of people contending with the same common yet painful life experience: the realization, a few decades into adulthood, that one’s future seems unlikely to be as successful, as fulfilling, as special as one had been led to hope. That sounds like a dour theme for a movie, but You Hurt My Feelings (which whisks by at 93 minutes) makes it both a serious subject of contemplation and a source of effervescent comedy. Beth’s inability to get past the ego blow dealt by that fateful moment of eavesdropping is easy to identify with—I mean, the man lied about liking the book over the course of 20 drafts!—but it’s also, objectively, absurd. As she grudgingly assents to her sister, she knows she has it pretty good with her cozy Manhattan apartment, devoted partner, and affectionate if aimless son. (An aspiring writer himself, Eliot works the counter at a weed dispensary.) Don’s opinion of the manuscript, as he is the first to insist after the truth behind his wife’s rotten mood comes out, is only one reader’s reaction. He loves her, he assures her—isn’t that all that matters? “Oh, OK. Well then … never mind!” Beth sniffles before storming away in a huff. Her whiny response is childish and self-pitying, if amusingly so thanks to Louis-Dreyfus’ mastery of her comic instrument. But it rings all too true to anyone who’s ever offered up the fruits of their creative labor to a loved one whose opinion they value. Twenty drafts!
Holofcener has already written the script for another great film about the struggles of an author, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, with Melissa McCarthy as a show-business biographer who turns to literary forgery to make ends meet. The creator of dialogue-driven ensemble comedies like Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Please Give, and the (also Louis-Dreyfus-starring) rom-com Enough Said, Holofcener is a writer-director in the truest sense, a filmmaker whose movies stand out for the attention they pay to the nuances of everyday speech and behavior. Her scripts have a way of finding humor in whole situations and contexts rather than in quotable one-liners. Scenes often end a beat sooner than they might in a conventional comedy, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks. Though the dialogue is naturalistic, it never sounds improvised at random. The precise language that’s used matters, as when an insult Beth repeatedly mutters to herself in a moment of self-deprecation turns out to be a refrain put in her head long ago by her verbally abusive father.
Louis-Dreyfus is as fitting a muse for the middle-aged Holofcener as Catherine Keener was for the director’s early career: Both are comediennes with sublime timing and a vulnerability no amount of deadpan can mask. Through nine seasons of Seinfeld and seven of Veep (with many memorable film and TV roles in between), Louis-Dreyfus has honed her skill at puncturing her characters’ small, everyday vanities. In You Hurt My Feelings, she gets a chance to display that expertise, while also showing us the real pain and confusion that underlie Beth’s often maddeningly self-sabotaging behavior. Menzies, an English actor who’s been a fixture on prestige television since the mid-2000s HBO series Rome (he’s since had roles on Game of Thrones, The Night Manager, and The Crown), is every bit Louis-Dreyfus’ match as the outwardly soothing, inwardly anxious Don, who’s grappling not only with issues at work but with a sense of alienation from his own aging body; squinting into the mirror at his crow’s-feet, he laments to his wife that “I used to be hot.” Moayed has fun playing a hypersensitive would-be actor who couldn’t be more different from Succession’s slick Stewy, while former Saturday Night Live cast member Watkins is a dry-humored delight as the one member of the film’s central foursome who’s able to maintain some sense of perspective.
One could certainly, like the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, dismiss You Hurt My Feelings as a trifle of a movie about whiny, navel-gazing Manhattanites who could do with a bout of being “harried down Madison Avenue by cybernetic pterosaurs firing Sidewinder missiles tipped with alien venom.” But in a movie landscape where most choices at the multiplex pretty much do offer that very plotline, the existence and persistence of films like this seems like something to be protected and cherished. The main character of this movie expends enormous effort seeking affirmation that the words she spends her days trying to get down on paper matter. The movie’s writer-director, one of the most idiosyncratic and indispensable voices currently working in film comedy, needn’t worry about a thing.