You Hurt My Feelings

MA 15+, 93 minutes

4 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

The married couple in this comedy of manners appear to be moderately happy, average Manhattanites. Successful enough to maintain a home on the island, but a world away from the apartments encircling Central Park. Their lives and achievements have landed them on that middle rung, and it can be a testing time for New Yorkers when they have reached their middle age.

They are lovely people. Kind and warm, and genuinely wanting the best in life for family and friends, but right now they are each having a bit of a moment. As a therapist, Don (English actor of stage and screen, Tobias Menzies) is feeling drained, finding sessions with certain clients rather taxing. In the opening scene he is counselling a married couple in their thirties who cannot stand anything about each other. As they trade tit-for-tat, their issues are funny and their personalities keenly observed. We expect no less from the filmmaker, writer-director Nicole Holofcener whose filmography includes deft social commentary comedies like Lovely and Amazing, Enough Said and Friends With Money.

Jim (Zach Cherry) is another discouraging client. A morose young male who mutters something denigrating about the session whilst leaving, one of those moments of insight from small gestures.

On the face of it, You Hurt My Feelings might sound like Beth’s story but Don gets a lot of screen time too. And the actors are well matched. As Beth, Julia Louis-Dreyfus may be one of the faces of Seinfeld, the TV series that captured the 90s, but versatile Menzies, high-profile since his turn as Prince Phillip in The Crown, is terrific as a perplexed and supportive life partner.

While Don is strung out, Beth is feeling rattled too. The draft of her first novel is with her literary agent who isn’t being very positive about it, so she is having misgivings about its quality. She hasn’t attempted fiction before. Her previous work was a memoir, entitled I Had To Tell It, a title that seems at one with the ‘write your heart out’ advice that she dispenses to her creative writing students. Then, Beth overhears Don confiding to his brother-in-law, Mark (Arian Moayed) that he doesn’t like her latest work.

At the very least, this sweet, smart movie is a cautionary tale for all the writers and aspiring writers who hunger for the truth but cannot bear to hear it. Holofcener, a screenwriter when she isn’t directing, is on to something wider here too. The limits to boosting others with support and encouragement, as well as the harm that can be done with a lack of honesty.

After breaking up with his girlfriend, the couple’s only son, Elliott (Owen Teague), comes home for a while. The 23-year-old who manages a weed dispensary downtown and has ambitions to write a play, reprimands his mother for talking up his abilities unrealistically while he was growing up. Sometimes parents just cannot win.

A sweet, smart cautionary tale for writers who hunger for the truth, and cannot bear to hear it

Like everyone else, Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), is having issues. The interior designer has to manage picky wealthy clients with unpredictable taste, a dynamic that is captured deftly in a few scenes with a client who can’t decide on light fittings. When back home with partner, Sarah has to help him overcome the disappointment he feels about not getting ahead as an actor, still only recognised for his lead role in ‘that silly pumpkin’ movie.

The only person in this extended family who doesn’t seem wracked with insecurity is Georgia, Beth and Sarah’s imperious mother. She may be nudging dementia but she is totally in command of her life, free with her opinions, and clear on important decisions like which clothes she will donate to the homeless. It is a memorable cameo from Jeannie Berlin.

As the problems escalate, I wondered why these folks didn’t just set off on a road trip along the coast of Maine or find some other change of scene. Or else say they didn’t like the V-neck sweaters or the leaf earring anniversary presents before they got locked into a tangled web of insincerity.

This is another miniaturist portrait from filmmaker Holofcener of a bunch of family and friends negotiating their comfortable but anxiety-ridden lives as quintessential urbanites who are kind and caring, narcissistic and culturally aware, yet quietly obsessed with making it in the big city.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 June 2023.  Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes