Movie Curiosities: You Hurt My Feelings

As a general rule, precious little gets on my nerves like characters who make their own problems for no reason whatsoever. It’s gotten to be an especially huge problem with romantic comedies and dramedies, as so many of those are about beautiful white people living in beautiful New York homes, stressing over their First World Problems for two hours’ runtime. Most of us are only one bad day away from losing our jobs, losing our homes, and/or facing a lifetime of poverty due to legal fees and/or medical bills. I don’t want to hear about anyone getting upset because they’re getting older, their job sucks, and/or their marriage is hitting a rough patch when they’re otherwise perfectly well-off. Shut up and deal with it.

So here’s You Hurt My Feelings, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, who also produces alongside star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s a dramedy about beautiful middle-aged people living in fancy New York homes who obsess over their petty selfish problems, blowing them way out of proportion for no reason whatsoever… but that’s actually kinda the point.

(Side note: You’d be forgiven if you didn’t remember that Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus had previously collaborated on the romantic dramedy Enough Said in 2013. That uneven misfire was primarily notable for its posthumous starring turn by the late James Gandolfini.)

Louis-Dreyfus plays Beth, a writing teacher who published her memoir to respectable success, but her first attempt at writing and publishing a fictional novel has stalled out after two years of effort. Her husband is Don (Tobias Menzies), who reads and reviews all of Beth’s manuscript drafts in between working hours as a therapist. We also meet Beth’s sister (Sarah, played by Michaela Watkins), a snarky interior decorator; and Sarah’s husband (Mark, played by Arian Moayed), a struggling actor with all-encompassing anxiety. Rounding out the cast is Beth’s son (Eliot, played by Owen Teague), a moody twenty-something with a dead-end job managing a cannabis shop while struggling to write the first draft of his first play.

The plot begins in earnest when Beth overhears her husband in a private conversation with the brother-in-law. Long story short, Don admits that he doesn’t particularly care for the manuscript of Beth’s novel, even as he’s told her multiple times that he liked it. No joke, this is the crux of the entire movie. Beth freaks out over a little white lie to the extent that it puts all of her social connections in jeopardy, and that’s our picture.

This shouldn’t work, and yet it somehow does.

First of all, it makes a huge difference that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the headliner. If anyone can play over-the-top neurotic in a way that’s endearing and funny, that’s kind of Louis-Dreyfus’ whole brand. I didn’t even realize how badly we needed a female and less-problematic answer to Woody Allen, but here we are.

Secondly, the film earns itself a lot of slack by way of brief moments that put Beth’s downward spiral into perspective. The other characters — and certain events in the plot, mostly pertaining to Eliot — serve to remind Beth that the world is burning down, she and other people in the world have genuinely serious problems, so maybe she should take a step back and chill the fuck out. On the other hand, Beth gets a fascinating monologue about how it may be a big scary world, but this is her own little world within it. Her little world is all she has, she wants to take care of it, and she cares deeply — perhaps to an unhealthy extent — about getting approval and attention from those friends and loved ones within it.

Most importantly, the film portrays Beth’s internal crisis as one small facet of a much larger and more universal issue: How much opinions are really worth. How do we choose whom to trust and who we listen to? Would you rather get a bad review from a loved one who’s got your best interests at heart, or praise from a stranger who might be trying to sell you something? What happens when your livelihood depends on the impossible task of satisfying some idiot who wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground?

It’s accepted common practice to be honest with our friends and loved ones, but it’s also accepted common practice that white lies are acceptable for the purpose of being polite and/or encouraging. So where do we draw the line? At what point are we feeding into unhealthy delusions or setting up doomed expectations? What exactly are the obligations we have towards our friends and family with regard to emotional support?

This is a complicated and nuanced aspect of relationships and social interaction, and kudos are due to the filmmakers for finding ways of exploring all this in a heartfelt and humorous way. To be clear, this is definitely a subtle and intellectual kind of humor, without any huge belly laughs or cartoonishly heightened moments. The comedy is much more low-key, primarily used to make the characters neurotic in a relatable way. It’s also geared toward highlighting the absurdity of how much our day-to-day lives depend on the misguided opinions of other people who don’t really know what they’re doing any more than we do.

Of course Julia Louis-Dreyfus is probably the single most important reason why this film works, but credit is certainly due to the rest of the supporting cast. Tobias Menzies makes a convincing case for himself as a poor man’s Jason Isaacs, and I’m genuinely impressed with how Michaela Watkins held her own against Louis-Dreyfus. Owen Teague and Arian Moayed don’t exactly wear out their respective welcomes, but they come close. It certainly helps that when they start to get too annoyingly pathetic, the other characters can play off that for comedy in a way that brings them down a couple notches.

Then we’ve got the bit parts. All throughout the picture, we’ve got appearances from the likes of Amber Tamblyn, Sunita Mani, Zach Cherry, and even David freaking Cross. It means a lot to have all these sturdy and seasoned comedic character actors to play off the leads and keep the laughs coming.

Alas, the weak link is easily Jeannie Berlin in the role of Beth’s mother. Here we have a stubborn old woman who constantly changes her mind, she’s impossible to impress, and she causes all sorts of headaches for her two daughters. There were so many possibilities to fit all of this into the greater theme somehow, but none of them quite come together. I might add that Beth’s history as an abused child played a massive part in her successful memoir, and there’s a moment when Beth lightly broaches the topic with her mother, but nothing comes of it. The upshot is that Beth’s mother plays a comic relief role in a movie already loaded with comic relief, showing up for scenes that sadly don’t add much of anything in terms of plot or theme. Damn shame.

(Side note: Berlin is only 11 years older than Louis-Dreyfuss. Let that sink in.)

All told, You Hurt My Feelings is perfectly fine. It’s a sweet and funny little dramedy trifle about neurotic characters working through their doubts and insecurities with varying degrees of success. We’ve got a cast of wonderful comedic talents, anchored by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a performance that conclusively proves she can still carry a film.

This is one of those films that I want to be careful about heaping any huge amount of praise on, because it isn’t a huge movie. It doesn’t stand a chance against all the extravagant blockbusters in multiplexes right now, but it wasn’t really designed for that. This is very much a “date night” movie, or a film to watch on home video with a glass of wine. I can more than happily recommend it on those terms.

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