Is there any harm in a little white lie? Nicole Holofcener deftly probes the infidelity of (dis)honesty in You Hurt My Feelings. The film marks her best work since 2010’s Please Give for its warm, witty, and wise consideration of relationships. More than that, though, You Hurt My Feelings refreshingly solidifies another relationship. It delivers on the promise of 2013’s Enough Said, which paired Holofcener with star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. You Hurt My Feelings suggests that Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus have entered a new phase. The former is the Pedro Almodóvar to the latter’s Penélope Cruz and vice versa. They’re a terrific director-actor pairing. As Louis-Dreyfus perfectly connects with Holofcener’s brainwave in realizing her character Beth, the film finds creative synergy that happens only when the most complementary of forces collide.
As Beth, Louis-Dreyfus plays a character much like Eva from Enough Said. She’s a perfectly cozy, well-to-do upper-middle-class New Yorker. Beth is a novelist and lives in a posh apartment with her husband, Don (The Crown’s Tobias Menzies), a therapist, and her 20-something son, Elliott (To Leslie’s Owen Teague). Beth is in the midst of writing a new book and Don reassures her that it’s good as she polishes the umpteenth draft. Don, meanwhile, finds himself on autopilot during his sessions with patients. He knows it and they know it. Beth and Don therefore share a mutual awakening in their post-mid-life crises: life isn’t really what they’d hoped it would be, and it’s too late for turning back.
A Life of Routine
Holofcener captures the sense of routine in which Beth and Don find themselves by using a perceptive rhythm. She frames the story in a three-act structure with each turn echoing its predecessor and beginning its routine in Don’s office. He increasingly strays from his duty to his patients in each act. He can’t remember case files. Patients openly express their frustrating with his uninterested canned feedback. Don basically thanks people for their money with little advice, guidance, or insight to their concerns. At the same time, he frets about the signs of worry all over his face. His cavernous wrinkles only have so much time to be youthfully puffed up. Where his patients can hide their problems, Don cannot.
Beth, meanwhile, gets a rude awakening about her own work. As she teaches writing classes for steady income, she learns that nobody in her class knows her work. She thinks her memoir about surviving her father’s verbal abuse was a hit, but even her mother (a deadpan perfect Jeannie Berlin) says that it was handled poorly by the publisher. Just as Beth finds herself overcome with imposter syndrome, she learns of the cruelest of little white lies from her greatest confidant.
The Fear of Settling
The bitter truth that Beth overhears shatters all she thinks she knows about her comfortable life. You Hurt My Feelings hits hard as it positions Beth within a terribly universal milieu: wasted time. Louis-Dreyfus relishes the opportunity to dig into her character’s 60-something blahs, bringing to surface Beth’s concern that her career, marriage, and life are all a sham.
Whereas Enough Said saw Louis-Dreyfus pivot to a quieter and more introspective emotional crisis, You Hurt My Feelings leans into the comedic chops for which she’s better known. The film is the better for it since Beth remarkably finds humour in the cruelty of her situation. Sometimes all she can do is laugh, but the pain of the little fib she encounters is a lesson she needs. She tells her students to write what she knows, and the reality with her new book is that she doesn’t know shit.
It risks being cheeky to say that Holofcener, too, is at her best with this story of self-reflection. After losing herself somewhat in the generic adaptation The Land of Steady Habits and adding a welcome perspective to the work-for-hire gig of The Last Duel, both of which favoured male protagonists, You Hurt My Feelings returns her to the terrain she knows best. Her films have always rung true as down-to-earth stories about what women want. Few directors capture the anxiety of aging like she does, while few are willing to be real about their characters’ relative privilege in the grand scheme things.
As Beth and Don learn what it truly means to commit to a relationship, many viewers should see themselves, their friends, and their family in these characters. You Hurt My Feelings is a humanely heartfelt dramedy that hits home for anyone who worries their shoes no longer fit.