With their explorations of everyday problems — and often those of upper-class white women —Nicole Holofcener’s films can feel slight to some viewers. Even the title of the director’s latest comedy, You Hurt My Feelings, appears to downplay the importance of its central conflict; it’s “just” emotions at stake, rather than lives or something of supposedly more gravity or value. Yet these are the conflicts many of us experience frequently, rather than epic quests or battles for power often seen on screen that resemble few people’s realities. Holofcener’s work has often focused on insecurities and misunderstandings in a way that feels authentic, and You Hurt My Feelings reinforces her position as someone who truly gets both her characters and her audience — and the criticism of her movies.
Holofcener veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Beth, a writer and professor living in Manhattan with her therapist husband, Don (Tobias Menzies). By all evidence, they’re a loving couple with a solid relationship: they share food in a sweet way their son (Owen Teague) finds nauseating, they’re still physically affectionate, and they marvel at their continued luck of being together. After the minor success of her memoir years ago, Beth has written a novel, but she has struggled with draft after draft. Even after her literary agent is less than enthusiastic about the manuscript, Don reassures her that it’s great. However, she soon overhears him telling her brother-in-law (Arian Moayed) that he doesn’t like it. His words shatter Beth’s trust, leaving her questioning both her marriage and her abilities as a writer.
“The whole world is falling apart, and this is what’s consuming you?” Don asks his wife when she tells him why she’s so upset, and it’s easy to see the meta-commentary on Holofcener’s movies. Similarly, Beth’s agent says she’ll have to compete against writers who have survived cancer or are refugees, when her story is far less inherently dramatic. Yet how Beth feels and what she writes are important to her; there’s value in her experience and value in having this story on screen. Few lob the same criticism at Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen as they do at Holofcener, even though their films are dealing with problems of equal weight (though, tellingly, as experienced by upper-class white men).
However, these are important questions, and ones that affect people every day. You Hurt My Feelings explores whether it is better to be supportive or honest in our relationships — because you can’t always be both. She also addresses how what we do isn’t who we are, especially not to the people who really love us. It’s a problem that people have to deal with everywhere, but it seems especially trenchant to think this through in a movie set in New York, a city full of ambition where it’s particularly easy for jobs to define you, both socially and personally. A film that contemplates these ideas could be ponderous, but Holofcener retains a light touch. Her script is thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny, both hallmarks of her work to date.
Holofcener has also always had a gift for assembling deep rosters of actors well-matched to their roles, and You Hurt My Feelings continues her streak. For her second collaboration with the filmmaker (after the sublime Enough Said), Louis-Dreyfus ably mines Beth’s insecurities, balancing them with wry humor and her love for her family. And when that family features two wonderful actresses — Michaela Watkins as her sister and Jeannie Berlin as her mother — the audience feels that same affection. (How has no one thought to cast Watkins and Louis-Dreyfus as sisters before this?!) Meanwhile, real-life spouses David Cross and Amber Tamblyn play a bickering married couple counseled by Menzies’ Don, bringing delight to the viewers as they absolutely destroy each other verbally on his therapist couch.
The problems explored in You Hurt My Feelings may not impact the fate of humanity, but they matter to these characters — and they’ll resonate with the audience. Holofcener’s movies intentionally work on a much smaller scale than those that dominate the box office and online chatter, and that’s part of their charm. The characters and situations in You Hurt My Feelings may appear commonplace, but that seeming mundanity turns the film into something special.
“You Hurt My Feelings” is in theaters Friday.