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The director Nicole Holofcener’s characters are known for their brazen honesty. But it’s dishonesty that drives her new film, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
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By Wesley Morris
- You Hurt My Feelings
- NYT Critic's Pick
- Directed by Nicole Holofcener
- Comedy, Drama
- 1h 33m
I love a complete sentence for a title. Even better: a complete-sentence title that also describes a filmmaker’s chief concern. “You Hurt My Feelings” sums up the Nicole Holofcener experience: funny in its wounded bluntness.
It’s the seventh comedy she’s written and directed since 1996. With more emotional harmony and generosity than her other films, it takes the same stock of ways we can bruise each other, partners, strangers, kids. Her characters — comfortable New Yorkers and Angelenos — tend to lash out; their preferred approach to honesty is brazenness. The new movie embraces more constructive impulses. It’s dishonesty that interests her here, the mild kind that one character calls, in his defense, “white lies” — what you tell a person because the truth would just be a whole thing.
The white liar is Don (Tobias Menzies). For two years, he’s been reading draft after draft of a novel his wife, Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), has been working on and telling her how good they are. The movie’s about what happens after she overhears him, at a Manhattan sporting goods store, telling her sister’s husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), that, actually, he doesn’t like the book, but the truth would kill her. He’s not wrong. She’s a weepy wreck for two scenes with the sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), convinced that now she’ll never be able to trust Don. But Holofcener is drawn more to the process of healing than she is to the wielding of hurt.
Twenty minutes pass before that sporting goods store encounter. By that point the movie’s already shown us what Beth’s and Don’s lives are like, together and apart. They’ve got the sort of sturdy, affectionate, unselfconsciously idiosyncratic bond that means they’d just as soon share an ice cream cone as a bed. One thing that’s probably kept the marriage firm has been saying “I love this” and “it’s great,” when it’s not. White lies are like Advil for certain relationships; they keep the inflammation down. In the aftermath of Don’s bombshell, up go her quills. She starts sleeping on the sofa, ignoring him and distancing herself, and he’s confused. Then one evening, in front of Sarah and Mark and a sad bowl of underdressed salad, she tells him that she heard what he said. Then the movie does what too few American marriage comedies do: adjudicate the disappointment. It becomes about the truths that flow from that unburdening.
Holofcener makes the smart decision to put Beth and Don in the constructive honesty business. She teaches writing to adults. He’s a therapist. I don’t think either of them loves what they do, but it looks like they make a good living at it. We get to watch her respond to her four students’ story ideas and, in one case, to an actual piece, and to observe him with a handful of patients. Holofcener’s films are fleet. Rarely do they exceed the 92-minute mark. But their social resonance springs from a marvel of proficiency.
Every relationship Holofcener gives us — and just about every scene — explores some type of candor, some act of leveling: between Don and Beth; Beth and Sarah; Beth and Don and their foggy 23-year-old son (Owen Teague); Beth and her agent (LaTanya Richardson Jackson); Beth, Sarah and their mother (Jeannie Berlin), a widower who lives under her daughters’ skin; a pair of married lesbians with whom a tipsy Beth instigates an argument; Sarah, who appears to be an interior decorator, and the particularly particular client displeased with her taste in lighting. Plus everything with the students, the patients and Mark, whose acting career is in neutral. I didn’t mention Beth’s pretty successful memoir about her (verbally) abusive father, whose title you need to hear stumble out of Louis-Dreyfus’s mouth. But Holofcener could have used it for just about any one of her movies.
Her targets, themes and tropes haven’t changed. It’s still narcissism and personal vanity (Don wants an eye job). It’s still the emotional disturbances of moneyed, dissatisfied liberals who need Black people and the poor to make sense of themselves as successfully good white folks. (Beth and Sarah do complacent volunteer work at a church’s surprisingly stingy clothing giveaway.) No American director’s more committed to exposing the smugness and self-aggrandizement of bourgeois urbanites.
The cantankerous, obnoxious and cruel characters are still here, too. Most of them are just sitting on Don’s couch. The harshest of them is a couple played by (the actually married) David Cross and Amber Tamblyn. These two hate each other, and they squirt Don with their bile. Now, in a Holofcener film, we can study intense marital dysfunction from the compartmental vantage of a mental health professional, somebody who in his personal life uses a completely different approach to communicating with his wife. Menzies’ good-natured neutrality here perfectly serves both Don the shrink and Don the husband.
Holofcener continues, nonetheless, to be more interested in character than in great acting. That makes sense since she needs her casts to approximate some version of us or people we recognize. Which is to say that everybody here is life-size. Louis-Dreyfus knows how to find real pathos in a hurry. She’s a pro at putting across Holofcener’s casually cranky snobbery (about new coffee shops, clean menus and $19,000 benches). Beth’s in the middle of saying something racist about the weed shop where her son works when the movie’s least believable incident goes down.
Part of me thought I wanted something wilder from Holofcener, comedy that felt like crisis. The way some of her earlier films do; the way it does in the novels of Nell Zink and Patricia Lockwood. But her studies of ego and frailty are closer to Albert Brooks and Larry David: about breaches of etiquette rather then psychological breaks. Still, this feels like a quiet breakthrough for her. She’s put the emotional dynamite away (her steadiest supplier of TNT, Catherine Keener, isn’t here). Instead, this is a work of discipline and structure. It’s a situation comedy in the best, classical sense: These people’s ethical problems are sometimes ours. I’ve been Beth. I’ve been Don. And I had to watch half of what they’re dealing with through my fingers.
You Hurt My Feelings
Rated R for language (the painfully honest kind). Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.
Wesley Morris is a critic at large and the co-host, with Jenna Wortham, of the culture podcast “Still Processing.” He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for criticism, including in 2021 for a set of essays that explored the intersection of race and pop culture. @wesley_morris
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