Filmmaker Nicole Holofcener teams again with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of her 2013 romantic comedy Enough Said, to spin small-scale moral conflict into sharply observed, well-constructed comedy in You Hurt My Feelings (★★★★☆).
In their previous outing, Louis-Dreyfus sparkled onscreen opposite James Gandolfini, playing an L.A. divorcée who discovers that the divorcé she’s dating happens to be recently divorced from the woman who’s become her new best friend. What to do, what to do? Hilarity ensues, or in that case, a warmly funny, exceedingly genuine look at seasoned adults struggling to close one chapter and move on to the next.
For this comic portrait of urbane adults in crisis, Holofcener swings to the east coast, for the tale of neurotic New Yorker Beth (Louis-Dreyfus), author of a successful memoir, who’s already feeling insecure about publishing her first novel when she overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) telling someone he thinks the new book is “no good.”
Don’s unvarnished honesty — which directly contradicts the praise he’d said to Beth’s face — sets off an escalating war of revelations and recriminations. Beth questions whether she can trust any of Don’s past words of praise and encouragement, and whether or not he even respects her as a writer.
He questions why it should matter, but, of course, it does.
First of all, the film argues, words matter, and Don’s words matter especially to Beth, whose memoir, I Had to Tell It, details years of her late father’s verbal abuse.
And Don’s opinion matters because, as the film suggests with repeated, amusing visits to the creative writing course Beth teaches at the New School — where none of the students have read her work — artists crave validation like anybody else.
Audience response is part of an artist’s process, and if their audience is lying to them, what have they got, especially if that audience is the one person they trust above everyone else to tell them like it is?
Louis-Dreyfus taps into Beth’s wounded sense of trust as well as her deeply wounded ego. In the pivotal moment that she overhears Don, the joke is that she can’t tear herself away from listening, despite knowing how hurt she’ll be to hear every word. But, in her shoes, who’d give up the chance to hear exactly what their harshest critic had to say behind their back?
Beth already gets her fill of harsh criticism told to her face by her mother Georgia (Jeannie Berlin, in a tart-tongued turn), who’s always honest with her opinions. She’s also held accountable by hers and Don’s 23-year old weed barista son Eliot (Owen Teague) for the little white lies she tells.
Yet, the movie isn’t so much about what truth gets told, and what gets held back, but why. Why would Don tell Beth he likes the book if he doesn’t? Why does Beth’s sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) unfailingly tell her struggling actor husband Mark (Arian Moayed) that he’s great in whatever role he’s playing regardless of whether she believes that’s true?
The film pokes around these questions cleverly enough to suggest that the answers aren’t as easy or as obvious as they may seem. For instance, Beth is unaware that Don is submerged in his own professional crisis as a therapist, not just insecure that he’s letting his patients down, but being told on a regular basis by his patients that he’s letting them down and should consider himself a failure. In a hilarious plot turn, disgruntled client couple Carolyn and Jonathan (Amber Tamblyn and David Cross) demand a refund.
While Louis-Dreyfus, who can play 360-degrees of comically indignant in her sleep, supplies the storm, Menzies calmly steals the movie with his complex, drolly funny portrait of male midlife crisis. “I was young and hot,” Don laments to Beth, launching a discussion of him possibly seeking plastic surgery. Now he “looks tired,” according to one of his patients.
Beth responds that he’ll always be younger than her, but that’s not enough for Don. He needs honest validation, too. We all do, says the movie, and, to have it, we will sometimes, or maybe often, settle for less than the truth to keep us happy.
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