YOU HURT MY FEELINGS
R, 93 mins.
2023, R, 93 mins.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Beth / Tobias Menzies as Don / Michaela Watkins as Sarah / Arian Moayed as Mark / Owen Teague as Eliot / Jeannie Berlin as Georgia / Amber Tamblyn as Carolyn / David Cross as Jonathan / Spike Einbinder as April / Zach Cherry as Jim / Sarah Steele as Frankie / LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Sylvia / Sunita Mani as Dr. AllenWritten and directed by Nicole Holofcener
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener's YOU HURT MY FEELINGS centers on one fundamental conundrum that just about any married person can relate to:
Is it okay to lie to your spouse if it means sparing their feelings?
We're not talking a gross relationship ending lie, like one involving infidelity, for example.
We're talking about the seemingly innocuous
little white lies that are told to our significant others in order to
spare them any personal embarrassment or sense of failure.
There's one well-off New York couple at the heart of YOU HURT MY FEELINGS that finds their somewhat cozy family life getting upended when the wife discovers that her husband secretly dislikes her work-in-progress book.
Actually, he hates it, but has propped her and her confidence up by falsely saying that it's terrific.
The wife, rather predictably, starts to think that the man she has spent a better part of her life with may have been a serial liar about countless other things. To be fair, this sounds like the petty first world problem squabbles of the frustratingly inconsequential (not to mention that the husband and wife in question live a fairly affluent life in the Big Apple, which perhaps underlines the self absorption factor ever more). But the subtle genius of Holofcener's dramedy is in how efficient and spare its approach is to the underlining material. The characters and their day-to-day trials and tribulations feel lived in and real. That, and it's one of the more authentic (and sometimes hard to watch) portraits of deeply fragile egos, paranoia and marital strife that I've seen in quite some time.
YOU HURT MY FEELINGS also re-teams Holofcener with her ENOUGH SAID co-star in the wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who here plays the aforementioned wife, Beth, an ambitious-minded, but struggling New York author who is having creative stumbles in penning her first fictional work after making modest gains with a memoir. On the side, she teaches at a local college to help nurture other aspiring writers while also boosting her own motivation to solider on with her work. Her husband, Don (a rock solid Tobias Menzies), is a well-meaning, but somewhat distant and ineffectual therapist who doesn't seem to be getting anywhere with his current crop of clients (one of them goes as far as unfairly labeling him as an idiot). Beth and Don have a twentysomething son, Elliot (Owen Teague), who also - like his mother - wants to be a writer, but spends most of his days as a lowly pot shop clerk, which unfortunately doesn't really stimulate his creative juices as much as he would like. We also get introduced to another family outside of them, which includes Beth's down-on-her-luck interior designer sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), and her husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), who desperately yearns to be an actor, but may or may not have the actual acting chops to make his dreams a reality.
One fateful day changes everything for Beth and Don. They decide to meet up with Sarah and Mark for a stress-reducing shopping trip downtown. During a moment when he thinks he's alone with Mark, Don confides in him that he secretly doesn't think much of Beth's latest book, but simply can't bring himself to be anything but positive in fear of her feeling defeated and humiliated. Rather disastrously for Don, he makes the worst kind of husband mistake by thinking that his wife was not within earshot of this confession, when in actuality Beth was just a few feet away and heard everything. Overwhelming feelings of betrayal ravage Beth, which leads to her not only emotionally distancing herself from Don, but also makes her question just about every other thing he has told her as of late. Beth is aware of the fact that she's not a runaway success as far as writers go (her first memoir that chronicled her upbringing with her abusive father was given some modestly decent reviews, but didn't take the world by storm). The combined impact of her own lack of confidence with her sophomore book and her husband's less than enthusiastic appraisal of said book leads to their once cozy union coming unhinged.
One thing that makes YOU HURT MY FEELINGS ring with so much touching and funny veracity is the manner that Holofcener captures the sometimes paralyzing insecurities that creatively driven people suffer from, not to mention the lengths that some spouses will go to in order to nurture their partners when - deep down - they know they might not have the stuff to make it with their passion projects. Beth and Don have been in a long-term marriage that has now been completely upended by Don's shocking (and accidental) revelation, which Beth takes very personally. Things just quickly snowball out of control for Beth. She becomes riddled with self-doubt about her skills as a writer and now has to contemplate just how honest Don has been all these decades together. Don, on the other hand, is completely oblivious to what he has done, which leaves him perplexed by his wife's sudden moodiness around him. This is a powder keg situation just waiting to go off.
This all sounds like something contrived for a family sitcom, and the film could have easily come off that way with the wrong people in front of and behind the camera. Holofcener has made a relative career either directing or writing films that delve into troubled personas dealing with some sort of crisis, and she has done so with a calm and understated economy and deeply perceptive viewfinder and execution. One thing that I admired about her choices in YOU HURT MY FEELINGS was that she avoids falling victim to broad, soap opera-y melodramatic flourishes. The temptation here might have been to go too farcical with the material and - worse yet - make Beth and Don unsympathetic. There's something to be said, as mentioned earlier, that these people are of such a privileged stature in life that emotionally latching on to them is hard. Yet, the one relatable truth that this film very accurately relays is how one little "white lie" told by one party in a once happy and well-adjusted marriage can hopelessly destabilize it. Don is by no means an arrogant SOB in the film. For all intents and purposes, he's a loving and deeply noble-minded husband who made a momentary dumb mistake that he now has to make up for. You kind of feel for the poor sap, but you also feel for Beth, who battles creative insecurity and now has to deal with a relative whirlwind of multiple insecurities when pondering just how on the level Don has been all this time.
Maybe this all has something to do with Don's own issues as a therapist. If he can't communicate and help his clients, then how could he do the same on the home front with his wife? In some of the film's most uproarious scenes, he tends to the needs of an absolutely hostile married couple (played hysterically by David Cross and Amber Tamblyn, married in real life), who manage to hurl multiple f-bomb riddled accusations at one another while in session while Don plays the soft-spoken and peaceful ringmaster (they grow so disenchanted with what they perceive as Don's hopeless inadequacies as a therapist that they bluntly ask him for a refund for his year's of flawed work with them). Granted, this angry couple and their blunt force trauma version of honesty with one another is diametrically opposed to the type of open, but civil communication that Beth and Done have...but that doesn't seem to be paying off well with them either. Menzies and Louis-Dreyfus' thanklessly dialled-in performances help drive this home as well. All throughout YOU HURT MY FEELINGS, viewers gain an immediate sensation that Beth and Don are a credible long-term couple with a history, and it's all done so unpretentiously throughout.
That's perhaps the best way to describe Holofcener's film: It has this pleasing and endearingly chill and calm vibe about it that allows her story and characters to just casually (but believably) cascade over viewers. The film's minimalist approach works wonders for its overall sense of immediacy. I only wished that YOU HURT ME FEELINGS was a bit longer (which is something that I don't usually say about many modern films these days) and was given more time to simmer and breathe (it seems to rush itself during its final stretches). Still, the overall wavelength that Holofcener achieves here is commendable, and she balances painful cringe comedy with an incisive examination of marital unease with meticulous precision.
It also wisely tells viewers that maybe - just maybe - reconsider that next little white lie you tell your life partner.