Julia Louis-Dreyfus Better Than Ever

According to novelist Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the adjective “adorable” shouldn’t be used to describe the elderly, since it’s better suited for babies and, therefore, infantilizing and condescending in other contexts. She’d be sorry to hear, then, that You Hurt My Feelings, the story of a critical speed bump in her marriage to Don (Tobias Menzies), ably earns that label.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the second collaboration between Louis-Dreyfus and writer/director Nicole Holofcener (following 2013’s Enough Said) is a tale of honesty, deception and communication breakdowns that proves to be an ideal showcase for its lead—even if its light comedy is a bit too slight.

Out to dinner for their anniversary, Beth and Don exchange gifts that they tell each other they love. Their enthusiasm, however, isn’t completely genuine. Those white lies are of a trivial sort, and no different from the many other times throughout the day that they refrain from saying exactly what they think.

For Don, who’s a therapist, that means staying quiet and letting his patients—including a combative pair played by real-life couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn—rant about their various problems. In Beth’s case, she finds it difficult not to be incredibly excited about the still-unfinished play being penned by her son Elliot (Owen Teague), who bristles at his mom’s effusiveness and can’t understand why she won’t buy weed from him at the pot shop where he’s employed.

Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

As the follow-up to a memoir about her father’s “verbal abuse”—which performed solidly, albeit not as well as her mother (Jeannie Berlin) thinks it could have—Beth has written a fictional novel, and her faith in that work is rattled when her agent doesn’t give her the positive feedback she wanted. Don remains supportive, even as he deals with his own crisis of confidence due to both a new patient (Severance’s Zach Cherry) who mutters “Oh god, he’s an idiot” as he signs off their Zoom meeting, as well as another session in which he mistakenly ascribes one patient’s daddy issues to another.

The truth hurts, and that’s additionally demonstrated by the plights of Beth’s sister Sara (Michaela Watkins), a home decorator dealing with a client who routinely rejects the sconces she’s picked out, and Sara’s husband Mark (Succession’s Arian Moayed), an actor who’s not well-equipped to handle rejection.

You Hurt My Feelings leisurely establishes its characters and the small corner of New York City that they inhabit, with Beth and Sara volunteering at their local church’s clothing drives and visiting their mother (and accompanying her to the doctor), and Don and Mark embarking on regular walks through Central Park. Holofcener has an instinctive feel for this milieu and these types of people, and she generates humor from small details and incidents, such as Beth’s mom telling her daughter to take home some leftover potato salad in tin foil because she doesn’t want Beth departing with one of her countless plastic containers.

From Elliot’s distaste for Beth and Don’s habit of sharing food (including an ice cream cone), to Berlin’s matriarch confusing TMZ and TCM (which she thinks stands for The Channel Movie), to Beth showing off how her eyebrows still move post-Botox, the film draws its main players in sharp, recognizable, amusing lines.

Following a series of minor conflicts, You Hurt My Feelings introduces a more serious one when Beth and Sara try to playfully sneak up behind Don and Mark at a sporting goods store and accidentally overhear Don confessing that he doesn’t like Beth’s new book.

This admission rocks Beth, who afterwards can barely look at her spouse, much less put up with his concerned questions about what’s bothering her and his continued encouragement to contact a new agent about getting the novel published. Desperate for Don’s approval (because she so values his opinion), Beth takes this declaration as a humiliating blow; his lying resonates as a betrayal of trust. An explosive confrontation, it’s clear, is all but inevitable.

That row eventually occurs, but You Hurt My Feelings is far too gentle and good-natured to mine it for Force Majeure-grade caustic laughs. While Beth’s hurt and shame are understandable, Don is obviously a good guy and devoted partner, and he’s lied in order to spare his wife’s feelings and to put her success ahead of his own amateur opinions. Thus, it’s hard to feel like Beth has suffered a mortal wound.

The relatively marginal nature of this affair is echoed by the film’s other threads involving falsehoods told for the greater good, be it Sara comforting Mark about a professional setback or Beth consoling Elliot about a breakup with a girlfriend who thought his job suggested a less-than-promising future.

You Hurt My Feelings would be funnier if it had more bite, and it’s no surprise that most of its storylines are resolved via sincere conversations about when to tell it like it is and when to fudge the truth in order to spare others’ feelings and avoid unnecessary (and unimportant) clashes. As it stands, it feels like a more pleasant version of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Still, if Holofcener keeps things in first gear, she peppers her material with a collection of witty one-liners, and she smartly stays out of her performers’ way, her direction as unfussy as her action is easygoing.

Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

Ultimately, You Hurt My Feelings works as well as it does because Louis-Dreyfus is as witty, charming and likable as ever. Expertly playing off her first-rate co-stars, the peerless comedian embodies Beth as an insecure woman trying to navigate a modern landscape rife with situations that call for varying degrees of honesty, and grappling with the fact that others might be deceitful to her in the same way that she is to them, whether she’s with her relatives or students at The New School who are trying to pen stories based on their own experiences.

Endearingly zany, as demonstrated by a late robbery that brings out her maternal protectiveness, Beth is a character perfectly tailored to Louis-Dreyfus’ skills. She’s the undisputed main attraction of Holofcener’s film, which is otherwise content to be nothing more than—to borrow another apparently verboten descriptor—cute.

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