Watching Nicole Holofcener’s new film You Hurt My Feelings, which premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, one begins to wonder why Julia Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t been starring in movies for decades. The actor, who previously worked with Holofcener in the lovely Enough Said, is so endlessly appealing on the big screen—funny, perceptive, natural—that one can easily envision a whole resume of interesting work spanning the years since Seinfeld.
And yet, Louis-Dreyfus has only done a handful of films. Thank god, at least, that she and Holofcener found each other, so wonderfully complementary are their styles. In You Hurt My Feelings, Louis-Dreyfus plays Beth, a writer of modest renown whose last book, a memoir about her somewhat troubled childhood, underperformed, and who is working on her first novel with frustrating results. Though outwardly supported by her husband, therapist Don (Tobias Menzies), Beth overhears him saying that he doesn’t much like the drafts of the novel he’s read. Beth is crushed, and begins to wonder if their trusting bond has really ever been what she thought it was.
Holofcener’s films tend to center on a theme. In the case of You Hurt My Feelings, she is looking at self-doubt, particularly when it comes to career. More broadly, she’s musing on what it is to encourage a loved one along on their path, whether that’s out of genuine belief in their pursuit; with some white lies meant to protect them from, well, hurt feelings; or an overconfidence in their abilities. It’s a funny topic for a film, a particular sub-facet of human exchange that Holofcener finds amusing and insightful ways to dramatize.
Which is, of course, what Nicole Holofcener does. You Hurt My Feelings is discursive and inviting, wandering around a leafy New York City as Beth frets and complains, often to her sister, weary interior designer Sarah (Michaela Watkins, a perfect addition to the Holofcener repertory company). Don has his own outlet—Sarah’s struggling actor husband Mark (Arian Moayed)—but mostly we see Don with his patients, particularly a bitter married couple played by, one assumes, happily married couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn. Don worries that he’s bad at his job, and is told as much by these hectoring marrieds who should probably be divorced.
Holofcener weaves these people and their problems together in delicate fashion, guiding us toward her thematic conclusions in a way that never feels starchy, didactic, too lesson-oriented. She’s got a light touch, a humane one too. Holofcener allows for plenty of real emotion to inform her characters—when Beth overhears her husband, it arrives as a genuine crisis, not a comedy-movie complication, an excuse to zanily freak out. Beth acknowledges that this is ultimately a petty, narcissistic concern, but it’s her petty and narcissistic concern, and it’s what she’s feeling. The film considers her tailspin both seriously and with wry amusement, as so many moments of life should probably be regarded.
Louis-Dreyfus is a magnificent interpreter of that evenhandedness. She has such fluid ease with the material, gracefully inhabiting Beth’s world with tic and idiosyncrasy. She shares an entirely credible familial rapport with Watkins and with the great Jeannie Berlin, who plays Beth and Sarah’s mom in a pair of very funny scenes. And Louis-Dreyfus keenly understands the particular tenor of parenting a grown child. Owen Teague, who was in Holofcener’s Mrs. Fletcher, plays Beth’s slightly aimless son, Elliot, a slouch who’s supposed to be writing a play but mostly just works at a weed store, to Beth’s perhaps reactionary horror.
Elliot’s little predicaments add to the detailed texture of Holofcener’s film, which lilts along until a few things have been learned, some slight alterations have been made, and it’s time to let Beth and the others drift off into the rest of their fictional lives. It’s a pleasure to have spent time with them, and with Holofcener’s amiably self-conscious wit (and wisdom). May she and Louis-Dreyfus (and the rest, sure!) do this all over again soon. In the case of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, movie star, we need to make up for lost time.
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