If I didn’t like Nicole Holofcener’s latest film, would I tell her?
OK, sure, it wouldn’t be so odd for a critic to give an unvarnished opinion. But what about a sibling? Or a spouse? If they didn’t care for Holofcener’s movie, what’s more important: Being honest or making a loved one feel good about themselves? Do any of us really want straightforward feedback or do we just want emotional support?
That’s the rich vein that Holofcener, a master of nagging neuroses, mines so expertly in “You Hurt My Feelings” – a film that I very much adored. I swear.
For Holofcener, something as commonplace as little white lies between a married couple is just as fertile territory as, say, time travel is to Christopher Nolan. To her, such a minefield of insecurity is a playground. And in “You Hurt My Feelings,” it’s glorious — albeit in a profoundly awkward way that can be mortifying — to watch her at play.
Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer, and her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), a therapist, are a long-married New York couple whose harmonious if humdrum life runs into a crisis at Paragon Sports on Broadway. The trouble isn't infidelity or even a nasty fight over athletic socks. Don is chatting there with his brother-in-law, Mark (Arian Moayed of “Succession”), when Beth and her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) come to meet them.
They approach slowly, wanting to hear what they're talking about. When they get near, Beth is horrified to hear Don confessing that he hates Beth's new book. He has always supported her writing. He's read every draft and only offered encouragement. So this revelation is for Beth like a betrayal, and it shatters her trust in him.
Middle-aged Manhattanites with hurt feelings, of course, may not seem like the end of the world. Surely Holofcener's title is a little ironic, like something a child would say. But she is brilliant in finding the major heartache in minor slights. For Beth, her husband's confession isn't just a blow to her ego but goes to the heart of whether her husband truly loves her. Beth's work is herself, she thinks, so how can he not like it?
Louis-Dreyfus, working with Holofcener for the second time following 2013's also great “Enough Said,” is incredibly good here. We all know by now that Louis-Dreyfus is one of our greatest comic actors ever, but she's a much stronger dramatic performer than tends to be acknowledged. When Beth's need for reassurance and validation crashes in “You Hurt My Feelings,” Louis-Dreyfus is movingly crestfallen.
This isn't the only story running here, either, though. With a terrific ensemble, “You Hurt My Feelings” digs into the half-truths that keep self-doubt at bay in all of these characters.
Don, himself, might not be such a great therapist, a realization that he's coming to. “He's an idiot,” one patient (Zach Cherry) mutters while exiting an appointment. David Cross and Amber Tamblyn, married in real life, play a bitterly bickering couple who agree on nothing except that they want their money back from Don after years of sessions. Sarah, too, is nursing Mark's acting dreams with words of encouragement while her interior-design clients reject all her ideas.
No one in “You Hurt My Feelings” seems to be all that great at their jobs. Holofcener's film is remarkably perceptive in its characters' faults while subtly arguing that we should overlook them.
After a prolonged argument, Beth begins to realize how she, too, sweetly lies to prop up her husband. It really crystallizes as a parent. When their son, Elliot (Owen Teague), is depressed after a breakup, what mother or father in their right mind would do anything but tell him what he wants to hear? White lies, maybe, make the world go round.
Would you, too, agree? This was a good review, right? Please be honest.
“You Hurt My Feelings,” an A24 release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for language. Running time: 93 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP