It’s a simple fact of life that everyone lies. This isn’t to say that everyone is one of those awful people who can’t help but to spew bullshit, but just that in order to exist in this world and minimize the hurting of one another’s feelings, the occasional white lie or withheld fact is something that cannot be avoided. It can certainly get murky, but we all do it. Yes, honey, you look fantastic. No, I would not leave you if you turned into a worm. But even though these lies are told in good faith, the fact of the matter is that we reserve these dishonesties for those who we love. If an enemy asked for my honest opinion on something, you bet your hippy I’d provide it without hesitation. Yes, your breath always smells, and everyone talks about it behind your back. Glad you asked.
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s delightful and occasionally dark comedy, You Hurt My Feelings, takes this unavoidable dishonesty and thrusts it upon a couple whose relationship could only be described as aspirational. Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a relatively successful author whose first foray into fiction is nearing publication. The final draft is complete, and her husband Don (Tobias Menzies), a high-end therapist, has given her work his approval. But one day, while out shopping with her sister (Michaela Watkins), she overhears Don expressing his frustrations with her novel. He doesn’t actually like the manuscript, and it leaves Beth feeling betrayed.
What follows is a light-hearted situational comedy that features rich people walking around a bougie area of New York while discussing the frustrations of their relationships. It reminds me of a Woody Allen rom-com, but with the added bonus that no one is going to demand that I explain myself for enjoying a movie that they don’t approve of. Although this general shell sounds basic, what makes the film sing is how tightly the script motivates its characters and pays off their interactions. At the same time Beth is dealing with self-doubt and what she sees as her husband’s dishonesty, he’s trying to make peace with what he suspects may be a lack of effectiveness as a therapist. Beth’s sister is struggling to find the perfect lighting fixture for a finicky interior design client, causing her to doubt the merits of her profession on the whole, while her husband (Arian Moayed) is reeling from losing a theater job. All four players have a unique situation, but Holofcener’s script finds the commonality between each, creating clever ways for the characters to be both aware of their own issues and clueless to their own hypocrisies. What emerges is an honest look at relationships and the strings we pull to make communication as honest as possible while also being supportive to those we care about. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s one that the majority of people traverse daily. This near-universal relatability allows the film to get away with murder in terms of getting the audience care about a foursome of people who almost certainly fly first class multiple times a year. Credit is due, of course, to the performers, who find the humor and drama in every moment, calibrating their delivery of the gags and emotional beats in such a way to prevent stepping into caricature territory. The material is character-based for the most part, but even the jokier gags are kept in the real world. One bit, involving Beth’s mother (the always incredible Jeannie Berlin), asserting that she doesn’t know what Beetlejuice is despite being in possession of a Playbill from the show is just fantastic. Another involving a battle of tinfoil vs Tupperware as an ideal container for potato salad had me in stitches. I could watch a whole movie of Beth, her sister, and her mother just trying to have a nice breakfast together. The chemistry between Louis-Dreyfus, Watkins, and Berlin is exceptional.
There’s a level of darkness to some of the humor, but it doesn’t betray the light nature of the story. What results is a film that is consistently laugh-out-loud funny without necessarily being predictable or crass in its comedy. It’s the type of movie that you could take Mom to see and not worry about anything too blue, but which is also edgy enough not to feel like safe, fleeting entertainment.
Holofcener keeps the visuals basic, letting the camera sit with each vignette-ish scene without calling attention to itself. This allows the actors and script a chance to breathe and maximize the material. This isn’t to say that the direction is flat or lacking. The New York backdrop suits the material nicely, capturing that “New York is a character unto itself” energy that serves so many classic comedies. It is, admittedly, only a small chunk of The Big Apple, and one not many would recognize, but it’s the New York that so many great writers assure us exists from behind their bespoke typewriter and a $150 bottle of Cabernet.
You Hurt My Feelings ultimately comes together in a thematically satisfying way that effectively serves each of the characters. It’s a complete script that manages to sneak some hard truths by the viewer without betraying its comical, breezy tone, showcasing a strong cast of recognizable faces. Come for the comedic stylings of the legendary Julia Louis-Dreyfus, stay for the raucously hilarious cameos from David Cross and Amber Tamblyn as a couple who, in light of years of what they see as failed couples therapy, agree that they should receive a refund.
Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Written by Nicole Holofcener
Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed
Rated R, 93 minutes