Sunday, May 26, 2024

Movie Review (Sundance 2023): ‘You Hurt My Feelings’ is Pure Bliss for Holofcener Fans


Director: Nicole Holofcener

Writer: Nicole Holofcener

Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Owen Teague

Synopsis: A novelist’s longstanding marriage is suddenly upended when she overhears her husband giving his honest reaction to her latest book.


Only a handful of filmmakers have a voice that’s so distinct you know within seconds of the beginnings of their movies exactly who made it, and that’s always been the case of the great Nicole Holofcener. Since her enchanting 1996 feature film debut Walking and Talking, Holofcener has written and directed many sharply observed, very funny, endlessly entertaining slices of life about women, relationships, and families. Lovely & Amazing from 2002 is a quiet ensemble masterpiece, and 2010’s Please Give was one of that year’s most underrated gems. I’ve loved her collaborations with Catherine Keener, but it was a delight in 2013 to see her make a film starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a role that earned the actress a Golden Globe nomination and gave her one of her richest performances on film. 

Therefore, I was thrilled to learn Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus had reteamed on a new movie—this might have been my most anticipated title at the Sundance Film Festival—and You Hurt My Feelings doesn’t disappoint. This is a breezy, beautifully acted movie that is easily one of Holofcener’s best, possibly the most laugh-out loud comedy she’s ever made. In the first scene. You are cracking up at an oddball situation in a therapist’s office, and the laughs rarely stop for the next ninety minutes. Holofcener has a skilled way of depicting realistic characters in truthful situations we can all relate to while she never forgets the humor and surprises in every given situation. This movie is a complete delight.

The central conflict to You Hurt My Feelings is not a big thing, isn’t a catastrophic life-or-death situation; it all rests on Beth accidentally spying on her husband Don and overhearing him talk about why he doesn’t like her newest book. You see, Beth takes her writing very seriously, and she’s been hard at work on her first novel for a couple of years. She’s had her husband read more than twenty drafts, and every time he’s told her how great he thinks her book is. When Beth discovers Don has been lying this whole time and is actually sick of her manuscript, she wonders if she can ever trust him again, and their marriage, which has remained strong for so long, finds itself at a potential breaking point.

There’s a lot more going on throughout the narrative—this is a Nicole Holofcener movie, after all. Don works as a therapist, and we’re given many scenes of him struggling to connect with his patients who are slowly making his life miserable. Beth and Don have a son Eliot (Owen Teague) who works at a marijuana dispensary and who’s looking to follow in his mother’s footsteps as a writer—in his case, a playwright. Beth works as a creative writing professor and loves chatting about her life’s woes with her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) and tries her best to take care of her ailing mother (and judgmental) mother Georgia (Jeannie Berlin). 

Despite all the moving parts, Holofcener, like always, brings the story elements so seamlessly, the outrageously funny circumstances never outweighing moments of honesty and emotional resonance. She revealed in the Q&A following the film’s world premiere at Sundance that she spends a couple years writing and revising her screenplays, and you can tell; there’s not an ounce of fat on You Hurt My Feelings, every scene having a clear purpose, but never feeling like mere pieces of a larger whole. Everything flows together with cohesion and thematic richness that at the same time always manages to be blissfully entertaining.

The cast is terrific from the top down, especially Louis-Dreyfus, whose struggles as a writer are funny and relatable, the way she walks into a bookstore to put her published memoir in a more featured spot, the way she tries to get a lesbian couple at a bar to share in her misery. She’s a performer that pulls you in and never lets go, and this film marks one of her best turns yet. Tobias Menzies and Louis-Dreyfus have a natural chemistry together, and his flipping out about her sadness in his lying offers plenty of great comedy, as do his interactions with his patients at work. Watkins and Berlin have some fine moments in supporting roles, and Amber Tamblyn and David Cross almost steal the movie as two of Don’s patients. If the film has one weakness, it’s that Beth and Don’s son Eliot could be better fleshed out, the character overly whiny at times, but that’s a minor quibble. And besides, his pursuit of being a playwright leads the narrative to its winning, pitch-perfect conclusion.

Nicole Holofcener is a true original, and I’m so happy to tell you her newest film is fantastic. It begs the question, what is better? To tell the truth to your partner or to build them up with a little white lie? From the beginning, you’re in the hands of a master who’s made half a dozen home runs before, and at this point it’s clear she’ll never strike out. You Hurt My Feelings is as good as Enough Said, if not better, and I hope she makes more films with Louis-Dreyfus. The two have a kinship that works beautifully on a narrative level, and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another ten years for their next collaboration. 

GRADE: A-

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