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Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ best big-screen work is hands down starring opposite James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener’s tender 2013 comedy drama Enough Said. It’s a pleasure to see the actress back together with the writer-director for You Hurt My Feelings, and even if the new film for A24 is more muted in its emotional resonance, it’s still a winning collaboration. Peopled with fondly observed yet credibly imperfect characters played by a well-chosen cast, this is very much a sophisticated New York City comedy of a type that’s slipped largely out of fashion, and its slight retro feel is part of its charm.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that any movie in which Louis-Dreyfus plays one of a bunch of Manhattanites all fixated to an often-neurotic degree on their own mostly minor problems will evoke memories of Seinfeld. But Holofcener never slips into sitcom mode.
She deftly pulls you in with an opening salvo of short, punchy scenes that lay the groundwork for her key characters with a pleasingly light touch. If the rhythm flattens out a little once the central conflict is in motion, Holofcener still pulls it all together in an ending that gives everyone a satisfyingly complete arc.
Louis-Dreyfus plays Beth, a writer who published a modestly successful memoir and is now fine-tuning a novel but concerned about the slow response of her editor (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). Her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), is a therapist beginning to feel his age (he’s contemplating an eye lift) and starting to mix up his patients’ problems, which prompts him to wonder if he still has the necessary professional dedication.
Don has read Beth’s new book at every step of its two-year gestation and has been effusively supportive every time. But the dutiful nature of that support is bluntly exposed when Beth and her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) decide to surprise Don and Sarah’s actor husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), while they’re immersed in that sacred male ritual of sock shopping. Before the women make their presence known, they overhear Don confessing that he thinks the novel is really not good and that draft after draft hasn’t improved it.
Beth keeps Don in the dark initially about the reason for her sudden coldness as the vote of no artistic confidence from someone she loves throws her into a spiral of self-doubt and resentment, making her question the trust in their marriage. The wound is deepened when she learns that not one of the students in her writing class has ever read or shown the least curiosity about her memoir.
It’s amusing scenes like that one, many of them flirting with edgy inappropriateness, that give the comedy its enjoyable ensemble energy, even if it’s the marital friction that’s the chief plot driver.
Don’s therapy sessions are full of droll moments, particularly the ongoing warfare of an unhappy couple (played with hilarious savagery by real-life spouses David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) whose resentment about the years and money they’ve poured into therapy while making no progress builds to a hostile outcome. Then there’s Sarah’s fatigue with hard-to-please customers in her decorator business, seen in repeated to-ing and fro-ing to find the right wall sconce. Mark gets a lift when he’s cast in a play but sinks into despondency when he’s fired, causing him to doubt his commitment to acting.
Holofcener has a knack for needling her characters for their privilege and pettiness, allowing them irritating moments without stripping them of sympathy. She even has Beth admit that her problems are those of a small, narcissistic world, but it’s her world. Everyone’s issues subtly feed into the sudden marital fissure between Beth and Don, raising questions about whether an ego-bolstering lie here and there isn’t actually an essential tool in maintaining a solid relationship.
The key catalyst to help Beth and Don find common ground again is the unhappiness of their son, Eliot (Owen Teague), who has been tinkering away at his first play since college. Meanwhile, he’s fallen into a placeholder position as manager of a weed store, which anxious Beth fears might become permanent. When he’s dumped by his girlfriend, Eliot starts spending more time with his parents, and his resentment surfaces toward his mother for constantly overpraising him, thus setting him up for failure.
All the comedy’s relationships are believably lived in, whether it’s the married couples, the parents and son or the sisters and their spiky mother, Georgia (the invaluable Jeannie Berlin). Watching Louis-Dreyfus and Watkins — the secret weapon of just about everything she appears in — banter with Berlin over matters as trivial as how to transport potato salad is a joy. Likewise, Louis-Dreyfus and Berlin complaining about the greasy menus in a diner, even though its down-market lack of pretension is what keeps them coming back. Also funny is a series of scenes in which Beth and Sarah volunteer to distribute used clothing to the homeless, with that disadvantage rarely sparing anyone from Sarah’s blunt candor.
There’s a modesty about You Hurt My Feelings that makes it seem in some ways as simple and straightforward as its title. But Holofcener is such a gifted writer that it becomes a mosaic of mildly absurd minutiae, mixed in with legitimate feelings. Throwaway moments like Beth strategically repositioning the lone copy of her memoir in a bookstore; Sarah pulling Tums, Gas-X, stool softener and Xanax out of her handbag during a birthday dinner; or Beth grilling a random lesbian couple in a bar about their support for each other’s work add body to the comedy’s admittedly rather slight frame.
The other gratifying element is the casual yet affectionate way that DP Jeffrey Waldron captures glimpses of various New York neighborhoods, situating the characters in a relatively confined radius that naturally to them feels like the center of the world. It’s not a bad place to spend an hour and a half.
Production companies: Likely Story, A24 Films, FilmNation Entertainment
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague, Jeannie Berlin, Amber Tamblyn, David Cross, Zach Cherry, Sarah Steele, LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Director-screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener
Producers: Stefanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman, Nicole Holofcener, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Executive producers: Johnny Holland, Gregory Zuk
Director of photography: Jeffrey Waldron
Production designer: Sally Levi
Costume designer: Chloe Karmin
Music: Michael Andrews
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman
1 hour, 33 minutes
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