Synopsis: A novelist’s long-standing marriage is suddenly upended when she overhears her husband giving his honest reaction to her latest book.
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague, Jeannie Berlin, Amber Tamblyn, David Cross, Josh Pais, Deniz Akdeniz, Zach Cherry
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: I don’t want to be this kind of critic (or person?), but I think I have to say it. To fully appreciate You Hurt My Feelings, to really understand why it bites down so hard on nitpicks and nagging, to get why audience members around you may laugh at lines that don’t have a punchline, I think you need to have been in a serious relationship for a significant amount of time. It’s from that human experience to know someone so well and intimately that it will only take one glance from them, or lack thereof, to give you satisfaction or send you on a shrill spiral to your perception of super doom where you truly, wholly, feel the perfection of writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s film.
That’s not to say you singles or mingles out there aren’t going to love this sharp comedy, too, a cool breeze of a film arriving at the beginning of summer to air out the stink of the last few months. Holofcener’s script has plenty of valuable takeaways, her first since working on 2021’s The Last Duel with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (She was also nominated for an Oscar for writing 2019’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Flying under the radar for years, when she does surface, Holofcener almost always has something interesting to say, even if it may not be aiming to please all comers. Reteaming with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of her 2013 feature Enough Said, Holofcener crafts a story for this modern era of big, easily bruised egos.
Riding the marginal success of her memoir to a teaching position at an NYC college, Beth (Louis-Dreyfus, Onward) is putting the finishing touches on her new work of fiction. Years in writing and revising, her agent thinks it needs more work but encouraged by her husband’s positive feedback, she is going out on a limb and bringing it to a new agent to see if he can get it sold for the right price. At the same time, her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies, Casino Royale), is experiencing a staleness in his job as a therapist and couples’ counselor. His regular patients (real-life couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) bicker viciously during their sessions, and a new referral (Zach Cherry, Isn’t It Romantic) is passive-aggressively hostile toward him. Then there’s his tendency to mix up the maladies of one patient with another – he’s adrift.
After visiting their mother (a caustically hysterical Jeannie Berlin, The Fabelmans), Beth and sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins, Paint) spot Don shopping with Sarah’s husband Mark (Arian Moayed, Spider-Man No Way Home) and decide to surprise them. That’s when it happens. Sneaking up on her husband, Beth overhears him telling Mark his honest thoughts about her completed work…and it’s not the same positive critique he’d been passing on to her for years. This revelation creates a fissure between the two, opening a deep well of trust issues having more to do with a lack of general communication in their marriage than with one opinion not being shared. Amid all this, their adult son, Eliot (Owen Teague, Montana Story), returns home with relationship difficulties crushing his world too.
While the plot summary and general idea of You Hurt My Feelings revolves around this supposed betrayal by Don, it’s not the true epicenter of the story Holofcener is conveying. That would be far too simple of a message for a writer/director who has always made what could be a trivial situation into a meaningful look at reactive relationships. Most of our stable relationships are just waiting for a glass of milk to be spilled to drum up a conflict that has nothing to do with the puddle in the center of the table, right? Here, Holofcener takes Don hiding behind an oft-used excuse, “I was trying to be supportive,” to allow a more significant discussion about relationships.
Did I mention the film is wildly funny too? If I’m making it all sound like a gloomy Bergman exploration of betrayal in NYC, it’s not that. I found every scene perfectly constructed and well-tailored to each actor, down to the minor supporting role. As interesting as Beth and Don were, I would watch an entire film about Sarah and Mark’s relationship or revisit Beth and Sarah’s acerbic mother if she took a trip somewhere. Holofcener gives these characters function and purpose in a short time and casts extraordinary actors to bring them to life.
Already triumphing on television, it’s time for Louis-Dreyfus to start practicing her red-carpet walk for even more prestigious award shows. I thought she delivered so well in Enough Said that she could have been on the shortlist there. However, in You Hurt My Feelings, she goes further, portraying a complicated (i.e., not always likable) person but never letting the audience want to root against her. Her work here is unlike anything I’ve seen her in, and intense scenes with Menzies and Teague could be career high points. Watkins could also be in on some excellent recognition for a fascinating performance. A frustrated interior decorator married to a struggling actor (Moayed is excellent, resisting the urge to lean into that sallow thespian trope), she has a spiky edge. Still, she recognizes and then appreciates how different her relationship with her husband is compared to her sister.
Holofcener has written and directed many strong films over her career, but You Hurt My Feelings is the first one I’d call perfect. The script is tight, and each scene is a little masterclass in comedy or high-stakes drama. Cross and Tamblyn’s crossfire fighting is bulletproof comic gold, just as a quiet, dialogue-free exchange between Louis-Dreyfus and Berlin is lovely to watch unfold. That’s the beauty in what Holofcener does for film and those who love it – she brings some of the real world, warts and all, into the open.