You Hurt My Feelings
Ten years after 'Enough Said', Julia Louis-Dreyfus and writer/director Nicole Holofcener team up on another warm, wry and winning gem of a dramedy.
June 13, 2023
When Seinfeld was the world's biggest sitcom, the show about nothing was also about everything. Its quartet of yada, yada, yada-ing New Yorkers was oh-so-specific, too, but also relatable. It's no wonder that the 90s hit made a star out of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who ensured that Elaine Benes was a work of comedic genius — with a Best Supporting Actress Emmy and six other nominations to show for it — and someone who could've walked straight in off the street. In razor-sharp political farce Veep, the actor did much the same to ample accolades. Making a Vice President in a gleeful satire feel real is no mean feat. But Louis-Dreyfus is at her best, and a true sensation, whenever she's in leading-lady mode in front of writer/director Nicole Holofcener's lens. That's only happened twice so far; however, both 2013's Enough Said and now 2023's You Hurt My Feelings are as excellent as engaging, lived-in and astute character-led dramedies come.
In her finest performances, Louis-Dreyfus inhabits her roles like she's always been in them. There's a lightness to her on-screen presence that never smacks of force, artifice or effort — a naturalism, clearly, even if she's working with comically heightened material. Nothing about Holofcener's two collaborations with Louis-Dreyfus goes big with its laughs, of course. The pair aren't making Seinfeld or Veep together. Instead, their talents combine in sublime and thoughtful works of intimacy and intricacy, wryly funny explorations of small moments, and perceptive slices of life — and You Hurt My Feelings is indeed a gleaming gem. It's also the kind of American feature that rarely gets a silver-screen run in these days of blockbuster franchises, endless sequels and remakes, and ever-sprawling cinematic universes (the filmmaker's last picture The Land of Steady Habits, which starred Ben Mendelsohn and arrived in 2018, was a Netflix affair).
The battle to find a home for Holofcener's preferred type of tales earns an in-script parallel in You Hurt My Feelings, with novelist Beth (Louis-Dreyfus, You People) also struggling. Her first book, a memoir about her childhood with an emotionally abusive dad, didn't notch up the sales she would've liked. At lunches between Beth, her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins, The Dropout) and their mother Georgia (Jeannie Berlin, Hunters), the latter still protests about how it was marketed. And, when she finally submits a draft of her next tome after toiling for years, Beth's editor (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Grey's Anatomy) isn't as enthused. None of these situations give the movie its name, though, which stems from Beth's therapist husband Don (Tobias Menzies, This Way Up) and his opinion. When she overhears him tell her brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed, Succession) that he isn't that fussed about the new text, it's shattering, especially when he's been nothing but her heartiest cheerleader otherwise.
Holofcener begins and punctuates You Hurt My Feelings with Don's sessions with clients, including an incessantly bickering and blatantly unhappy couple played by game real-life spouses Amber Tamblyn (Y: The Last Man) and David Cross (Station Eleven). They argue. They complain openly and heatedly about each other. They say awful things, but they're also adamant about staying together. They start expressing their displeasure about paying for Don's services when it evidently isn't making any difference to their domestic disharmony, which feeds his own doubts about whether he's any good — and, while taking time away from the luminous Louis-Dreyfus, these asides also cut to the heart of this supremely well-observed movie. We're all our own worst critics, and we all jump on any chance we can to reinforce our fears, worries and raging cases of imposter syndrome. We all rely upon our partners to be the voice of support, positivity and encouragement. When that falters or rings false, then, it isn't minor.
As Holofcener's layered screenplay explains in the film's economical 93-minute running time, Beth and Don have always prided themselves about being close. Their college-aged son Eliot (Owen Teague, To Leslie), who is writing a play and working in a weed store, cringes over his parents' codependence and shared meals. When Beth and Don buy each other anniversary gifts, they even each make the same mistake — but that decades-forged comfort proves fragile the instant that Beth hears what she'd never have guessed that Don would say or think. You Hurt My Feelings unpacks why on both sides, also interrogating self-confidence and insecurity, the need for validation, tiny misunderstandings that feel massive to whoever is on the receiving end, social niceties, and white lies uttered with the best of intentions, with Sarah and Mark's relationship, his up-and-down acting career, her interior-design work, and Eliot's own personal and professional tussles also providing examples.
She's been busy with Veep, the unimpressive Downhill and multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances in the decade since she last worked with Holofcener, but here's hoping that it doesn't take as long for Louis-Dreyfus to reteam with the writer/director again. She's that magnetic and, yes, relatable in the filmmaker's fare, and that devastatingly great at both comedy and drama as well. Although You Hurt My Feelings' guiding force has had a packed slate herself, not just with The Land of Steady Habits but also episodes of Enlightened, Parks and Recreation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, One Mississippi, Mrs Fletcher and Lucky Hank, the same wish applies her way. Her empathetic features about everyday women are that authentic and incisive, as both Enough Said and this demonstrate. Here's a dream: a Holofcener film with both Louis-Dreyfus and the helmer's Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money and Please Give star Catherine Keener.
Casting has always been one of the filmmaker's talents; in You Hurt My Feelings, Menzies, Watkins, Berlin, Moayed and Teague are all wonderful as well. Holofcener gets the same honesty out of each, and from Louis-Dreyfus, as she channels into her smart dialogue, earnest insights and pitch-perfect musings about life. Thanks to cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron (A League of Their Own), her movie looks as naturalistic as it always feels — and, while almost everyone watching isn't a NYC-dwelling writer with a shrink husband and wounded pride over a book, the emotions that You Hurt My Feelings trades in are genuine. Also 100-percent sincere: the feature's winning way with finding humour in the need that we all have to be seen and appreciated, the tendency to tell our loved ones what they want to hear and the very real clash between those two behaviours.
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