Little White Lies Animate Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Comic Turn in Nicole Holofcener’s ‘You Hurt My Feelings’

It’s par for the course for the writer and director whose wonderfully low-key satires explore everyday concerns, testy interpersonal relations, and awkward social situations.

Jeong Park; courtesy of A24
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 'You Hurt My Feelings.' Jeong Park; courtesy of A24

To lie, or not to lie, that is the question central to Nicole Holofcener’s new film, “You Hurt My Feelings.” Whether it’s better to fib to a loved one or speak honestly when dealing with fragile egos and touchy subjects — it’s a question we’ve all put to ourselves at one time or another. 

The film isn’t referring to love affairs, though, but much more mundane matters, such as saying you like your partner’s book but you don’t, or encouraging your child to swim when he clearly has no knack for it. 

It’s par for the course for Ms. Holofcener, the writer and director whose wonderfully low-key satires explore everyday concerns, testy interpersonal relations, and awkward social situations.

The book in question is by author and writing teacher Beth, and the person doing the dissembling is husband Don, a therapist. A well-to-do couple living at New York, they have a loving marriage and a fresh-out-of-college son who considers their closeness almost exclusionary. 

When Beth discovers that her editor isn’t interested in her second book — a novel Don has praised in all its revisions — she’s nearly offended. That is, until she realizes that Don doesn’t like it either.

The scene in which she comes to this realization takes place in the Paragon Sports store near Union Square, an athletic megastore familiar to New Yorkers. 

As Beth and her sister Sarah attempt to surprise their husbands while the two men ponder the store’s thousands of sport socks, they overhear Don mentioning how he actually doesn’t like her manuscript and how he was afraid to tell her because she can be sensitive about her work. 

Cue a full-blown existential crisis on Beth’s part as now she doubts many of Don’s pronouncements and even the foundation of their marriage.

When crafting characters this prickly, absurd, and yet relatable, it helps when the director can pinpoint actors or actresses on the same wavelength. Ms. Holofcener certainly did when she cast Catherine Keener in her first five films. 

From “Walking and Talking” to “Enough Said,” Ms. Keener was able to embody, even when she wasn’t in the lead, the self-assured yet unsure type of person required.

This movie’s protagonist is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who also starred in “Enough Said.” Bringing her obsidian knife-sharp timing and unique physical comedy to the part, Ms. Louis-Dreyfus is a welcome presence, especially for those like myself who miss her iconic turn as the beleaguered vice president, then president, Selena Meyer, in HBO’s “Veep.” 

Indeed, the new role could almost be seen as a continuation of that character’s constant failings and indignities. Or the regular gaffes her character Elaine witnessed or made on “Seinfeld.”

Like many of Ms. Holofcener’s movies, “You Hurt My Feelings” is an ensemble piece, which means we also spend considerable time with Don, played by actor Tobias Menzies. 

Known for his roles in “The Crown,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Outlander,” he gives a fantastic performance here, subtly outlining how Don is going through a mild midlife crisis. 

Like his wife, he begins to doubt his strengths at work, particularly when several patients mock him, both directly and indirectly, for his ineffectual methods in treating their relationship issues. Talk about hurt feelings over hurt feelings.

There’s also Michaela Watkins as Sarah, and the idea of casting her and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus as sisters was genius. Throughout the movie, their scenes together reflect a rapport so natural, so interchangeable, so sardonic that one wishes for an entire slate of movies or a series exploring their relationship. Jeannie Berlin as their elderly mother has a couple of memorable scenes as well.

Even before Beth finds out that her book isn’t to Don’s taste, one can sense where the movie is headed: toward a big scene that maps out whether it’s better to lie to loved ones to protect their self-esteem or be plainly, if not brutally, honest. 

That moment arrives about an hour into the 90-minute film, and it also involves their son Owen, who accuses Beth of coddling him when he was a boy until he thought he was exceptional in all he pursued.

The way that Ms. Holofcener offsets Beth’s umbrage about being lied to by her husband with Owen’s distaste for her exaggerated encouragement definitely feels pat, and yet it also means that the director ties up her story more neatly than in past films. 

Still, surprises do occur during the last half-hour, including a sight gag in the movie’s final minutes that put me in mind of words from Susan Sontag: “Sanity is a cozy lie.”

The New York Sun

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