‘You Hurt My Feelings’ review: She can’t handle the truth

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I like a full sentence for a title. In fact, a full-sentence title that also describes a filmmaker’s greatest concern. “You Hurt My Feelings” sums up Nicole Holofcener’s experience: funny in its wounded bluntness.

It is the seventh comedy she has written and directed since 1996. With more emotional harmony and generosity than her other films, it takes the same ways we can hurt each other, partners, strangers and children. Her characters – comfortable New Yorkers and Angelenos – have a tendency to lash out; their preferred approach to honesty is brutality. The new film embraces more constructive impulses. Are dishonesty that interests her here, the mild kind that a character calls “white lies” in defense – which you tell someone because the truth would just be a whole thing.

The white liar is Don (Tobias Menzies). For two years he reads draft after draft of a novel his wife, Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), has been working on and tells her how good they are. The film is about what happens after she overhears him telling her sister’s husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), in a sports store in Manhattan that he actually doesn’t like the book, but that the truth would kill her. He’s not wrong. She’s a crying wreck for two scenes with the sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), convinced she’ll never be able to trust Don now. But Holofcener is more drawn to the healing process than to handling pain.

Twenty minutes go by for that meeting with a sporting goods store. At that point, the movie has already shown us what Beth and Don’s lives are like, together and apart. They have the kind of firm, affectionate, unconsciously idiosyncratic bond that means they’d be as quick to share an ice cream cone as a bed. One thing that has probably kept the marriage going strong is saying “I love this” and “it’s great” when it isn’t. White lies are like Advil to certain relationships; they keep inflammation down. In the wake of Don’s bombshell, her quills go up. She starts sleeping on the couch, ignores him and distances himself, and he is confused. One night, in front of Sarah and Mark and a sad bowl of underdressed salad, she tells him she heard what he said. Then the film does what too few American wedding comedies do: condemn the disappointment. It is about the truths that arise from that unburdening.

Holofcener makes the smart decision to put Beth and Don in constructive honesty. She teaches writing to adults. He’s a therapist. I think neither Loves what they do, but it seems they make a good living at it. We see her react to the story ideas of her four students and, in one case, to an actual play, and we observe him with a handful of patients. Holofcener’s films are fleeting. They rarely exceed 92 minutes. But their social resonance comes from a marvel of skill.

Every relationship Holofcener gives us – and just about every scene – explores some kind of frankness, an act of levelling: between Don and Beth; Beth and Sarah; Beth and Don and their foggy 23-year-old son (Owen Teague); Beth and her agent (LaTanya Richardson Jackson); Beth, Sarah and their mother (Jeannie Berlin), a widower who lives under her daughters’ skin; a pair of married lesbians with whom a tipsy Beth provokes a fight; Sarah, who turns out to be an interior designer, and most importantly special customer dissatisfied with her taste in lighting. Plus everything with the students, the patients and Mark, whose acting career is neutral. I haven’t mentioned Beth’s quite successful memoir about her (verbally) abusive father, whose title you should hear gushing out of Louis-Dreyfus’ lips. But Holofcener could have used it for just about all of her films.

Its goals, themes and tropes have not changed. It’s still narcissism and personal vanity (Don wants an eye correction). It is still the emotional distortions of rich, disgruntled liberals that black people and the poor need to see themselves as successful, good whites. (Beth and Sarah smugly volunteer at a surprisingly miserly church clothing giveaway.) No American director is more committed to exposing the smugness and self-aggrandizement of bourgeois urbanites.

The grumpy, annoying and cruel characters are still there too. Most of them just sit on Don’s couch. The toughest of them is a couple played by (actually married) David Cross and Amber Tamblyn. These two hate each other, and they spray Don with their bile. Now, in a Holofcener film, we can study intense marital breakdown from the compartmental point of view of a mental health professional, someone who uses a very different approach to communicating with his wife in his personal life. Menzies’ good-natured neutrality serves both Don the psychiatrist and Don the husband perfectly here.

Holofcener nevertheless remains more interested in character than great acting. That makes sense since she needs her casts to approach some version of us or people we recognize. That means everyone here is life size. Louis-Dreyfus quickly finds true pathos. She’s a pro at conveying Holofcener’s casually cantankerous snobbery (about new coffee shops, tight menus, and $19,000 couches). Beth is about to say something racist about the pot shop where her son works when the film’s least credible incident comes down.

Part of me thought I wanted something wilder from Holofcener, a comedy that felt like a crisis. As some of her earlier films do; as in the novels by Nell Zink and Patricia Lockwood. But her studies on ego and vulnerability are closer to those of Albert Brooks and Larry David: on breaches of etiquette rather than psychological fractures. Yet this feels like a silent breakthrough to her. She’s put away the emotional dynamite (her regular TNT supplier, Catherine Keener, isn’t there). Instead, this is a work of discipline and structure. It’s a comical situation in the best, classic sense: these people’s ethical problems are sometimes our own. I’ve been Beth. I’ve been Don. And I had to overlook half of what they’re dealing with.

You hurt my feelings
Rated R for language (the painfully honest kind). Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theatres.

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