It’s a premise that could have inspired a sitcom episode, and probably has: Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer who has been working on draft after draft of her new novel, accidentally overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) offer his honest opinion of her work, which he’s repeatedly praised to her. The truth is, he doesn’t much like it, and he feels like it’s too late for him to tell her this. What makes this seem like a potential sitcom episode is also, oddly, what makes the movie seem true to life: This revelation isn’t just an embarrassment for Don or a surprise for Beth; it spirals into a crisis of confidence for both of them. The rawness is right there in the title: You Hurt My Feelings, a phrase that (unless I’m misremembering) no one in Nicole Holofcener’s new movie actually directly says out loud. Beth doesn’t need to; it’s all over her face, whether accompanied by anger, sadness, or uncertainty (over her career, her marriage, her family… you name it).
You Hurt My Feelings is, to be clear, very funny – I laughed out loud repeatedly, especially in scenes involving Beth, her sister Sarah (a perfectly cast Michaela Watkins), and their fussy mother (Jeannie Berlin, ably and hilariously impersonating someone five or ten years older than her actual age). Those laughs feel fuller because the movie allows the truthfulness of that hurt to burn through the mild shenanigans of sneaking up on your spouse while he’s sock-shopping and hearing something you shouldn’t. Rather than letting her movies turn into farce-lite trifles without the wherewithal for full slapstick, like some later-period Woody Allen pictures, Holofcener only gets sharper and more precise as she moves through her career. Feelings, along with Enough Said, her decade-ago previous collaboration with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (whichI see I also described as deceptively sitcom-ready back then) and Please Give, from a few years before that, sits among her best.
One of Holofcener’s gifts is her ability to casually, convincingly fill out what could seem like a cloistered upper-middle-class New York City world. Though Beth and Don are the film’s focal points, we also spend time with Sarah and her actor husband Mark (Arian Moayed), as well as Beth and Don’s son Elliott (Owen Teague), himself an aspiring writer, who expresses discomfort over his parents’ closeness and, eventually, their loving encouragement. Is he actually good at all the things they tell him he is, or does he just have a doting mother, desperate to reverse her own, less nurturing upbringing? All of the characters ultimately struggle with forms of this question, and while Holofcener clearly has affection for all of them, she’s unsparing enough to allow for the very real possibility that none of them are particularly good at the things that they’ve self-designated as their skill sets, their passions, their callings. Maybe no one is? Maybe even a calling is subject to the muddling-through mediocrity of everyday life? That’s not exactly the point she’s making (at least not explicitly), but it’s tantalizing to watch a movie that itself seems cautious about providing too much encouragement, too much coddling for its audience. This is a comedy, not a therapy session.
Although, as it happens, this is a comedy that contains multiple therapy sessions, because Don is a therapist, and, in keeping with the artier aspirations of his friends and family, something of a flailing one. He catches himself mixing up patients’ backgrounds, he sees a couple (real-life spouses David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) who seems comically incapable of positive change, and, in a devasting social exposure to match Beth’s, he even overhears someone else muttering about the sessions’ – about his, really – uselessness. In the starkness of these low moments, it’s hard not to ruefully think of how many movies and TV shows trend in the opposite direction, earnestly espousing the benefits of therapy and emotional openness. It’s hard not to think specifically of Ted Lasso, a feel-good workplace sitcom where every character seems to eventually arc toward moral instruction for the viewers, apparently in such dire need of guidance that they not merely laugh at Ted’s culture-clash antics, but laugh with them, and, worse, learn from them. In Holofcener’s films, even moments of understanding can sting: “Leave him alone,” Tamblyn’s character says when her husband criticizes Don for not helping them enough. “He looks tired.”
It would be a stretch to describe You Hurt My Feelings as a rebuke to the fact that Ted Lasso’s second and third seasons have kinda sucked. It’s a bigger achievement than that, and bracingly alive all on its own, all the more impressive for existing near-exclusively in an Allen-ish world of privilege without using that world as a narrative problem-solver. (It’s a little vexing that no one in the movie seems to have any financial concerns, but the writer-director of Friends with Money can probably be granted a pass there – and anyway, the fact that Don and Beth are potentially well-compensated for their work only makes questions of their competence cut deeper.) But it’s still a relief to see that starting with sitcom simplicity doesn’t have to mean a bunch of squishy revelations that engulf comedy and attempt to decompose it. It can, instead, build out into something exacting and almost anthropological in detail. And even so: funny, too.