‘You Hurt My Feelings’: The Perfect Julia Louis-Dreyfus Cringe Comedy
“We’re so lucky,” Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tells her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies). He’s a therapist with a private practice in Manhattan; she teaches creative writing at The New School. Their son, Elliott (Owen Teague), is happy, healthy, and works at a weed dispensary, though Mom isn’t so jazzed about that last part; the shop barely has any security! The long-married couple has just celebrated an anniversary. Several years ago, Beth wrote a memoir about her relationship with her father. It sold extremely well. Now she’s working on a follow-up book, a novel, and… it’s not going so hot. Her agent thinks it needs more heat (“cancer, murder, abuse!”). Beth’s solution is to consider switching agents.
But hey, everything’s great for these two middle-aged, upper-middle-class soulmates who still publicly canoodle after all these years. Then Beth and her sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), overhear Don and her brother-in-law, Mark (Succession‘s Arian Moayed), having a private conversation while shopping. The subject is Beth’s new book — it seems that Don is not a fan. He can’t tell her this, however, because he wants to be supportive. So the husband tells his wife that it’s wonderful, you’re nailing it, keep up the good work. And now that the wife knows that he’s been lying to her, she feels like she can never, ever trust a single word he says.
There’s a version of this movie that, in some worst-timeline universe, is cloying and toothless, touchy-feely and cute, and drops this revelation in the name of wacky shenanigans before everything is neatly tied up with a nice bright bow. Or, worse, it gives you the equivalent of someone sticking pins in live bugs, just to snicker at their squirming.You Hurt My Feelings is most assuredly not that. Because it comes from writer-director Nicole Holofcener, a Sundance O.G. who’s been making these types of spiky, character-driven farces since the mid-’90s, we’re actually getting the best-case scenario. She’s a cringe-comedy maestro, finding dry humor in the most vulnerable, humiliating encounters (we still can’t watch that scene in Lovely and Amazing where Emily Mortimer asks what her lover thinks of her naked body) without sacrificing the humanity. Holofcener isn’t cold or gratuitously cruel. She’s just brutally honest, which is why she’s one of the only people suited to make a truly funny movie about brutal honesty.
Plus she has a collaborator who understands how to walk the fine line between biting and bittersweet. Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus first worked together on 2013’s Enough Said, and it was obvious from the jump that their comic sensibilities were almost preternaturally in sync. The hope was that this wasn’t a one-off; you wanted them to foster a Scorsese-De Niro type of working relationship, albeit kinder, gentler, and with a few less bloody corpses in their wake.
Here, Louis-Dreyfus leans into the character’s prickliness, insecurities — she gets busted moving her memoir from a back shelf to a bookstore’s front table — and impatience with her elderly mother (Jeannie Berlin is a national treasure!), among other less-than-stellar qualities. But unlike other memorable JLD characters, Beth is not breaking behaviorally bad in an upside-down Upper West Side à la Elaine Benes or a busted Beltway like Selina Meyer. She lives in a recognizable world of long-held grudges, petty squabbles, and seemingly “small” comments that cause seismic personal catastrophes. The Veep star has always excelled at slapstick rage and sputtering aggression, not to mention shock at when others up the antisocial ante; no one does silent “are you fucking kidding me?!” reaction shots better. Yet she and Holofcener have hit upon a groove that allows her to temper those talents with a sadness, a sense of disappointment and deflation — a real sense of hurt feelings. It’s the perfect movie for Louis-Dreyfus to flex her comitragic chops.
You still get the woman who gave us this displaying her physical-comedy prowess (she literally crawls over her son and smothers him out of protection), and you still get someone who can deliver verbal sucker punches. But you also get Louis-Dreyfus doing this in the context of a grounded story about what happens when the line between being supportive of your spouse and selling them an enabling fairy tale gets blurry. Menzies, we should add, isn’t just a scene partner and a sparring partner for his costar; he also gets a few deadly sins to call his own, notably vanity and sloth. Like JLD’s character, his therapist is worrying about his diminishing sense of relevance and his ability to keep doing good work. He’s begun phoning it in at the office, to the point where he mistakes one patient’s backstory for another’s. Even Don’s best intentions feel half-baked. For folks who know Menzies from, say, The Crown or as a cad on Outlander, this breezy yet befuddled and neurotic turn will be eye-opening.
For all the business that You Hurt My Feelings orbits around these two — some pot shop and writing-class banter, Watkins and Moayed’s own semi-angsty subplot, David Cross and Amber Tamblyn’s deliriously toxic double act as Don’s patients — the movie never takes its eyes off the dynamic between these two. It is a primo cringe-comedy, to be sure, but it’s also a portrait of a marriage: the no-filter sniping, the comfort level that lets someone call a better half on their bullshit, the shared history that turns bad gifts into inside jokes.
When that mutual feeling of trust breaks down, it can seem cataclysmic. Or it can go from being a potential marital Chernobyl to another rough patch that gets talked out and smoothed over. What Holofcener has always done best is to make us laugh at these kinds of wince-inducing moments without sanding down the edges or selling her characters short. Along with her comedic partner in crime, the filmmaker is willing to bypass the niceties and dig into what’s real. Then, and only then, does the duo go for the laugh. Never mind Beth and Don. We’re the lucky ones.
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