So you married an artist. It may be the absolute perfect union of love and companionship. But what happens when you genuinely don’t like your other half’s work?
That’s the pivotal question in Nicole Holofcener’s unassumingly profound seventh feature You Hurt My Feelings, the latest of her piercing comedies about stuck New York creatives. But it’s not the only question in this brisk and observational 90 minutes, a compendium of lucid insights about modern relationships that’s as accurate as it is uncomfortable.
Longtime spouses Beth (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) and Don (Tobias Menzies) enjoy what appears to be an idyllic marriage, carrying themselves like a smitten young couple. They share everything with each other, even meals, to the dismay of their 23-year-old son, Elliott (Owen Teague). They still celebrate every anniversary, complete with gifts, even if the presents are secretly duds. If they’re going through a rough patch in their careers — Beth, a writer who published a moderately successful memoir, has failed to secure a publisher for her debut novel, and Don, a therapist, has lost his mojo and is suffering a crisis of confidence — at least they have each other’s backs.
Until the moment, that is, when Beth eavesdrops on a conversation in which Don reveals to his brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed) that he dislikes Beth’s novel — despite having assured her of the opposite, in draft after draft. How can Beth overcome such a betrayal, even a well-intentioned one?
Others in Holofcener’s ensemble likewise encounter professional challenges that bleed into their personal relationships. Beth’s sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) is an interior designer who, spurred by a particularly uncooperative client, begins to doubt her worth, and the vapidity of her vocation in a world teeming with problems far bigger than the perfect light fixture in a wealthy Manhattanite’s apartment. Her husband Mark is languishing in his own existential thoughts. An actor of middling renown who has just been fired from a play in which was cast, he’s considering abandoning the craft altogether. Elliott, meanwhile, has a college degree, a screenplay that seems forever unfinished, a day job that’s below his station, and a girlfriend who seems on the brink of leaving him.
There is dissatisfaction and ennui to go around, then, even among minor characters, like the lesbian couple Beth meets in a bar: a floral designer and a painter who, once Beth opens up a Pandora’s box about how they feel about each other’s art, begin to pick at each other’s nits. Amber Tamblyn and David Cross memorably portray warring spouses receiving unsuccessful couples counseling from Don, each session a ferocious, drag-out verbal battle. (“Can you shut up and keep talking?” demands Tamblyn, a paradox that makes perfect sense in the moment.)
Holofcener’s script is a deceptively intricate hall of mirrors in which characters’ seemingly unique travails are reflected in those of their friends and neighbors and patients. Patterns repeat, and through those repetitions, a kind of clarity breaks through their emotional morasses of, yes, hurt feelings.
In dealing with artists at their most vulnerable and desperate, Holofcener discovers poignancy in the cringe. At the heart of You Hurt My Feelings is a communing with the almost famous and the just-good-enough, and their struggles navigating an environment in which everyone is supposed to be living their best life. This disconnect is present when Mark, having been recognized in a shop for his minor role in a kids’ movie, invites a selfie from his “fan” only to be rebuffed. It’s there in the creative-writing class Beth teaches, when she makes an offhand reference to her published memoir, assuming her students have read it, only to find they never knew it existed. It takes a certain person to have published a book with a glowing blurb on the jacket, only to be jealous of another writer’s more-effusive blurb. You will recognize this person.
Indeed, like most great comedies of discomfort, You Hurt My Feelings is such an effective film — with a central chemistry from its two leading actors that any director would want to bottle and preserve for a future project — that you will probably see yourself in it. Don’s therapeutic acumen may not be as potent as it once was, but Holofcener has made, if it’s not too corny to label it as such, a healing movie.
You Hurt My Feelings punctures our contemporary anxieties and finds solutions for them. It presents an overdue argument for a kind of radical honesty. And unlike a session or two or three or 16 of talk therapy, you might achieve a breakthrough for the cost of a movie ticket.
YOU HURT MY FEELINGS. Director: Nicole Holofcener; Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague, Jeannie Berlin, Amber Tamblyn, David Cross; Distributor: A24; Rated R; Opens May 26 at many area theaters