Everyone in You Hurt My Feelings is lying.
These aren’t big, scary lies; don’t expect anything like a scandalous affair from this film. Instead, writer-director Nicole Holofcener explores the little white lies we tell our loved ones, like pretending to like a gift or a piece of their work. But as You Hurt My Feelings unfurls, it turns out that the discovery of these smaller fibs may hurt more than bigger, more malicious lies. Holofcener employs her trademark authenticity and sharp wit to create an incisive look at the small things we keep from each other — and to question why we do so in the first place.
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What is You Hurt My Feelings about?
You Hurt My Feelings kicks off with an intense therapy session, which sees married couple Carolyn and Jonathan (played by Amber Tamblyn and real-life husband David Cross) pick at each other. She hates how he doesn’t look at her; he hates how she makes him salads. Looking on, their therapist Don (Tobias Menzies) seems way out of his depth.
But this movie isn’t about Carolyn and Jonathan — at least, not directly. It’s about Don and his wife Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer who is currently trying to get a novel published. Compared to Carolyn and Jonathan, Don and Beth seem to have a much happier marriage. When we first see them together, they’re celebrating their anniversary and talking about how lucky they are. They support each other in their work, with Don telling Beth over and over again how good her new book is. However, an overheard conversation soon rocks her perception of her entire marriage.
Beth and her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) eavesdrop on a conversation between Don and Sarah’s husband Mark (Arian Moayed), where they hear Don admit he doesn’t think Beth’s book is good. It’s enough to make Beth throw up… or at least retch in the street before coming up empty, in a hilariously mundane bit of physical comedy from Louis-Dreyfus.
While Beth processes Don’s lie throughout the rest of the movie, it’s hard not to think of Carolyn and Jonathan, whose brutal honesty contrasts greatly with Beth and Don tiptoeing around their own problems. As You Hurt My Feelings progresses, we learn more about other lies in Beth’s orbit: Sarah doesn’t think Mark is the best actor, but she always tells him he’s great. Some of Don’s clients are civil in sessions but call him an idiot as soon as they leave. “What’s the best approach to relationships?” the film asks. “And how do we toe the line between truth and falsehood when we know the truth would hurt way more?”
You Hurt My Feelings hits hard with subtle humor.
With prior films like Please Give and Enough Said, also starring Louis-Dreyfus, Holofcener has proven adept at creating slice-of-life comedies of manners that thrive on understated, acerbic humor. You Hurt My Feelings is no different, mining laughs from awkward pauses, sharp retorts, and its characters’ general anxiety. Instances like Don mixing up two of his clients’ personal histories or Beth realizing that none of her writing students have read her memoir are the perfect encapsulation of how the film spins gold from cringeworthy moments.
As one of the greatest comedic actors ever to grace the screen, it’s no surprise that Louis-Dreyfus delivers a hilarious yet startlingly vulnerable performance. Menzies and Watkins in particular match her, with the rest of the film’s ensemble, including Moayed and Owen Teague as Don and Beth’s son, getting some standout moments as well. A scene involving Watkins, a difficult client, and a lamp is a particular riot.
You Hurt My Feelings knows that its characters’ problems are not big deals in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t stop it from treating them with the appropriate importance for each character. While Beth acknowledges that the world is falling apart and that Don’s lie should be the least of her worries, You Hurt My Feelings still raises important questions. If Don doesn’t like Beth’s work, which she sees as an extension of herself, what does that say about his feelings for her? Meanwhile, Don just wants to encourage Beth — so what if he didn’t enjoy her book?
Watching this couple awkwardly fumble to be honest, even about the small things, results in an endearing watch full of cathartic, sweetly funny moments. It has all the hallmarks of a great Holofcener film, and proves once again that when she and Louis-Dreyfus work together, magic happens.
You Hurt My Feelings opens in theaters May 26.