Julia Louis-Dreyfus leads an excellent ensemble cast that perfectly embodies the kind but insecure group of characters. You Hurt My Feelings focuses mainly on two couples who are experiencing some self-doubt in their professions, which begins to bleed into their personal lives.
Mark (Arian Moayed) is a struggling actor who has faced rejection and doesn’t think he’s good enough, and his wife Sarah (Michaela Watkins) is an interior decorator who can’t seem to please her client. Sarah’s sister, Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is attempting to write a book her publisher isn’t interested in, and her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) is a therapist who’s beginning to think he offers nothing of value to his patients.
The result is a quiet comedy of manners that chooses small existential questions and keeps picking at them like a scab until it hurts. What if you’re not good at what you do? What if people are lying to you about how much they like your work? What if the thing you’re passionate about, something you create and enjoy, is actually disliked by the people you love the most, but they don’t want to hurt you by telling you the truth? These seemingly petty questions spiral outward into a perfect tapestry of complex emotions, witty humor, meaningful realizations, and beautifully human moments in You Hurt My Feelings, one of the best films of the year.
You Hurt My Feelings
Beth wrote a somewhat successful memoir (though she can’t help but think it should’ve done better), and now she’s writing a work of fiction. After practically dozens of drafts, her publisher still won’t go forward with the book, though her husband, Don, loves it and supports her. She stares at the pile of papers, thinking, ‘Is this any good, and how can I ever know?’ She teaches a class of budding writers, and probably lies to them half the time about how interesting their work is in order to encourage and support them, but she never considered that her own husband would be doing the same to her.
Beth and Sarah stumble upon their husbands in a New York City store one day and decide to sneak up on them. Before getting too close to see but close enough to hear, Beth is startled to hear her name come up; Don is going on about how much he dislikes Beth’s new novel, and how impossible it feels to actually tell her the truth. Beth backs away, sickened in the way one gets when a sliver of their perception is shattered.
Now, Beth can’t trust anything Don says. Sarah tells Mark about this interaction and swears him to secrecy, and soon everyone in their small group is wondering just how much to trust each other. Even white lies can fracture the intimacy of a relationship, especially when they concern a person’s career, art, and passion.
Another intimate relationship is explored in You Hurt My Feelings — therapy. A married couple (a hilarious David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) seems worse off than when they began therapy with him. He thinks he overhears one patient insulting him. A long-term patient is leaving. Now Don’s career is in self-doubt, as well.
Nicole Holofcener’s Small Masterpiece
All of this happens organically and with a natural flow largely absent from most comedies. Comedy films often feel like squalls, but You Hurt My Feelings comes in flurries. It’s never heavy-handed, dumb, loud, or melodramatic. There’s a smallness to it that’s extremely lived-in, but in that smallness lies buried universes.
That’s the genius of Nicole Holofcener, the filmmaker behind this little masterpiece. She has this tendency to make whole films about the small banalities of our day-to-day existence, and then extract massive ethical and psychological truths and meaning from them. It could be the power dynamics of having less or more money than someone close to you (Friends with Money), the emotional baggage we carry into relationships after divorce (Enough Said), the realization that a friend is growing up faster than you (Walking and Talking), or the tendency to need approval from others (Lovely & Amazing).
They’re miniature themes compared with the bloated bigness most movies aspire to, but it’s so satisfying and nourishing to see how she develops them and mines them for meaning. In many ways, she is the Eric Rohmer of our time, and it’s great to have her back with You Hurt My Feelings. While her muse, the great Catherine Keener, is dearly missed, it seems like Louis-Dreyfus could easily become her next regular star. They did heartfelt, honest, and hilarious work together a decade ago in Enough Said, but they’re in even better form here.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus Leads a Stunning Cast
Louis-Dreyfus is of course one of the best comedic actors alive, but she has an emotional depth that is often overlooked by people who are too busy laughing at what she’s able to do with a character. She is, in many ways, a comedic Meryl Streep. It’s mind-boggling to consider that the same person who played Selina Meyer in Veep also played Elaine Benes in Seinfeld and Beth in You Hurt My Feelings. While she’s been getting the Marvel Cinematic Universe treatment in recent years, it genuinely feels like she belongs in the Holofcener-verse, where she does her best cinematic work. She’s perfect as a generally happy woman having a momentary midlife crisis.
Tobias Menzies is delightful as Don, and the relationship between the two characters feels like the most realistic version of actual love in middle age. Arian Moayed plays arguably the most insecure character in the film, but he’s adorable here, and a far cry from his Succession character. The two lead men do an excellent job building believable characters with warmth and wit.
While Louis-Dreyfus is perhaps our most deservedly famous comedic actors, Michaela Watkins is arguably our most undeservedly underrated. There’s a maturity, intelligence, and charm to everything she does (especially the woefully underseen but utterly brilliant Hulu series Casual), and in a perfect world, she could sell out stadiums with a one-woman show reading the phone book. She’s great here as Beth’s sister Sarah and probably the most put-together person in the film. Sarah has just about transcended the hang-ups everyone else has, and is instead a comforting presence. Everyone else thinks they want honesty, but just want better fiction. Sarah’s comfortable enough with herself that she couldn’t care less.
These great actors are in wonderful harmony with a director who is somehow at the top of her game even after creating excellent films for decades. They’ve created genuinely good but authentic characters in a genuinely good and authentic film. Every now and then, you’ll meet a movie like that. Ultimately, You Hurt My Feelings is smarter, sweeter, and simply better than just about any other comedy this year, and that’s no lie.
From A24, You Hurt My Feelings is a FilmNation Entertainment and Likely Story production, and releases in theaters on May 26th.