You Hurt My Feelings

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Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings is a midlife-crisis movie. A people-with-money movie. A first-world-problems movie. Prickly and trivial, easy to dislike sight unseen. Smart. A bit French. Talky. New York Jewish. The sort of film where middle-aged people drink wine and chat in restaurants while subtexts dash about beneath the surface.

Like her movies Friends with Money or Enough Said or Please Give, then, except this time the knot Holofcener is worrying away at is honesty, and whether it serves a useful function in a loving relationship.

Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is an author wrestling with her latest book, which is no good, though that isn’t what her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) is telling her every time she asks him. Don has problems of his own, though he doesn’t yet see it that way. He’s a shrink who listens to people’s problems but never offers any suggestions as to how they might improve their lives. Then there’s Beth’s sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins), an interior designer who hates her clients and believes her job is stupid. Sarah’s partner Mark (Arian Moayed) is an actor who’s just been fired off a production for being… well, who knows, but possibly he just wasn’t quite good enough. Beth and Don’s son Eliot (Owen Teague) works in a pot store selling weed. Five people who hold themselves to a high standard but whose validation comes from outside, apart from Eliot, who’s “only 23” and appears to be under-achieving on purpose.

That’s the status quo ante until one day, quite by chance, Beth overhears Don telling Mark that he thinks the book his wife’s working on sucks. And all hell breaks loose. Why couldn’t he have told her that to her face, she wants to know. Is it because he’s incapable of hurting her feelings? Or is it because he cannot be honest with her, because he doesn’t love her?

Don and Beth standing and looking shocked
Crunch time for Don and Beth

Typically for a Holofcener drama, everyone lives in a state of total self-absorption. Atypically for her, the way she chooses to work through the problem she’s set up – love as protection versus love as bracingly frank – takes things towards a conclusion that’s more Frank Capra than you might expect. Changes are made, lessons are learned, improvements happen, it turns out that doing the right thing also turns out to be the good thing.

This makes You Hurt My Feelings the Holofcener drama for people who don’t like Holofcener, or the one to avoid if you’re a signed-up member of the fan club. For me it felt like the sort of thing that Larry David could get up and running, work through like a terrier and then dispatch with a flourish – and all in about 40 minutes of Curb Your Enthusiasm running time.

It’s familiar white-collar-woe stuff – the writer, the shrink, the actor, the interior designer, familiar types all. The acting has that breast-beating quality you get in a Woody Allen film and there are regular reminders that Holofcener got her start on Allen’s films (she was raised by Charles Joffe, Allen’s producer for 40 years). Regardless of what you make of that the actors are dependably good. Around the core foursome – fivesome if we include Teague, who plugs away in a “one to watch” way with the scant lines he has – circle other excellent performers. Jeannie Berlin, so great in The Night Of a few years ago, plays Beth and Sarah’s dotty New York Jewish mother. Zach Cherry, so great last year in that weird sci-fi show Severance (and now presenting, I see, the US version of The Great British Bake Off), as one of Don’s patients. Particularly excellent are David Cross and Amber Tamblyn as the bickering married couple Don is meant to be “fixing”, according to their way of seeing things, and who can only agree on one thing – that Don’s no good as a shrink.

These side characters help things feel a little less schematic. They round things out and put some emotional warmth on the bones. Or, looked at another way, they bulk out a drama that could say what it’s trying to say in half the time. Apologies for hurt feelings.

Je t’aime, je t’aime – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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