Film Review: “You Hurt My Feelings” — A Shape-Shifting Entertainment
By Steve Erickson
It features fine performances, but the comedy-drama, You Hurt My Feelings avoids placing too much on the line. It exists in a comfortable middle ground — nothing is ever taken to an extreme.
You Hurt My Feelings, directed by Nicole Holofcener. Opening on May 25 at AMC Boston Common 19, AMC Assembly Row, Somerville Theatre
You Hurt My Feelings is hard to pin down: it shape-shifts from being a light comedy into a drama about imposter syndrome. Set in an upper-middle-class New York milieu of writers and actors, it is filled with characters who probably aren’t as talented as they think they are. To pick a member of its central quintet who isn’t an artist, there’s Don (Tobias Menzies), a mediocre therapist. Or at least his patients think so. Their dissatisfaction with him is a running gag. One Zoom session ends with an analysand, mistakenly believing the mic is already off, calling him “an idiot.” An unhappy couple (Amber Tamblyn and David Cross) can finally come together on one thing: they agree they’ve wasted the $33,000 they’ve spent on two years of sessions with Don. In fact, they deserve a refund. Don is treated sympathetically, but there’s scant evidence that his patients are wrong.
Don’s wife Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a writer and college professor. She struggles with the feeling that she’s competing with a new generation of young authors, including her students. Their 23-year-old son Eliot (Owen Teague) manages a legal cannabis dispensary, but dreams of following in mom’s footsteps by completing his first play. Fresh out of college, he still lives with his parents. Beth spends a great deal of time chatting with her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins), who works as a home decorating consultant. Sarah’s husband Mark (Ariane Moayed) is a troubled actor who is tormented by the fact that his biggest success came a decade ago. The central conflict of You Hurt My Feelings (and the source of its title) is finally introduced about a third of the way through. Beth overhears Don admitting to Mark that he didn’t like her new novel. He’s too polite to tell her honestly, but she’s hurt when she finds out what he thinks.
Most of the characters in You Hurt My Feelings are middle-aged. (One can even sense Eliot absorbing their personality traits.) They have enough money to be able to afford to worry about their artistic ambitions. (Mark brings up his unhappiness with acting to Sarah — after he has been fired from a play — and says he wants to quit the profession. The question of “So, how will you earn a living?” never comes up.) The truth is, the New York of Holofcener’s films has always seemed a little back-dated. Her work looks back to a certain kind of ‘70s film: the cinema of Paul Mazursky, Claudia Weill, and Elaine May. (May’s daughter Jeanie Berlin portrays Beth’s mother.) It also seems fitting that Holofcener’s stepfather, Charles Joffe, produced Woody Allen’s early films. Those days are long gone: middle-class life in the city has grown far more precarious. Several Holofcener films show their protagonists volunteering to help the homeless — Beth and Sarah spend their weekend mornings handing out clothes to them — but the omnipresent reality of extreme poverty in today’s New York isn’t very visible.
Julia Louis-Dryefus’ career has been defined by her two major TV roles: Elaine on Seinfeld and Selina Meyer on Veep. She worked together with Holofcener a decade ago, in Enough Said. You Hurt My Feelings revolves around a group of people, rather than an individual, so for some it might evoke Seinfeld. But that show’s casual callousness is alien to Holofcener’s sensibility. Even so, all the major characters express real pain at one point or another. The film is fairly gentle towards them, but to its credit it doesn’t stint on the pain they cause each other.
You Hurt My Feelings’ topical touches are witty but a little shallow. Faced with harrowing stories of sexual abuse and prison life from her students, Beth feels that personal trauma has become an essential part of writing for a contemporary readership. But she doesn’t think she’s suffered enough. (Her current manuscript details her father calling her “stupid” and “shit-for-brains.”) The fact that trauma has become a marketable commodity in current literary fiction lingers, but the film doesn’t probe the subject too deeply. Beth’s fears about the potential dangers of Eliot working in a weed dispensary — whose security guard appears to be its most faithful customer — come to fruition, but in a lighthearted way. Armed robbers grab their favorite strains without hurting anyone.
Don’s desire to get an eye lift plays a much larger role in the film, but even here, You Hurt My Feelings avoids judging him for it or satirizing the popularity of plastic surgery. (Sarah admits she’s had Botox, but the film is far more interested in male vanity.) Menzies’ performance maintains a steady deadpan; his interactions with Louis-Dreyfus, especially before Sarah learns his verdict on her book, are convincingly intimate. The actors’ chemistry is a valuable asset for the film; we are given a sense of a complicated relationship and family dynamic.
Still, in the end, You Hurt My Feelings avoids placing too much on the line. It exists in a comfortable middle ground — nothing is ever taken to an extreme. On the one hand, this modesty has its value; it gives all the members of its ensemble cast a chance to shine. Yet there’s ultimately something a little too safe about the goings-on. For most people in America today, the anxieties around their work — and their ability to do it well — are tied to its financial necessity. (Beth seems to be doing very well teaching one class a semester between novels.) Conveniently, You Hurt My Feelings removes economic precariousness from the picture, reducing its characters’ problems to the purely personal. The result is that the film comes off as more of a pleasant but superficial short story than a full-scale comedic-drama.
Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.