When the writer-director Nicole Holofcener is on her game, in movies like “Lovely and Amazing” and “Enough Said,” the snap and sparkle of her dialogue is like neurotic champagne. It gives you a lift; the conflicts percolate around in it like bubbles. That humane snarky effervescence is a Holofcener signature, and so is her commitment to making adult comedies about the things that people think and talk about that almost never make it into movies — like, for instance, the squirmy intimacy of the upwardly mobile competitiveness she caught in “Friends with Money.”
Her new movie, “You Hurt My Feelings,” hooks us from the opening scene, where two people in the miserable thick of a couples’ therapy session berate each other, and the therapist too, with such sharp-elbowed hostility that we can’t help about wonder: Is the therapist doing something wrong? It turns out he is. He’s too passive and polite, too neutral and nice. That proves to be a relevant and interesting problem, since he’s one of the film’s two central characters.
Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a novelist and essayist, and Don (Tobias Menzies), the aforementioned shrink, have a long and happy marriage. The film never doubts or questions their love for each other. That’s part of what allows it to explore, with a sneaky intricacy, the ways that even a good marriage can hit a snag when it comes to the issue of secrets and lies.
Out at a restaurant to celebrate their anniversary, the two exchange gifts, and when Beth opens hers (a little box with gold earrings in the shape of leaves), her response is priceless: the generic enthusiasm of someone who’s seriously underwhelmed but is not going to say it, something Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays like a maestro of comic euphemism. It seems to be a trivial moment. Who cares if Beth didn’t like the earrings? But it’s a preview, in miniature, of the conundrum that hangs over the movie. Namely: When do we tell the truth to our partner? When is it better to lie? And what happens when you’re seriously not sure?
“You Hurt My Feelings” is a Holofcener ensemble piece, and for a while she has great fun introducing us to her latest family of characters. There’s Beth, who teaches fiction writing at the New School and has just presented her latest novel to her agent. It’s a book that Don, having read many drafts of it, says that he loved, though Beth is just touchy enough about how well her memoir sold (not well enough) to cue us to the massive insecurity, and need for approval, that’s roiling just beneath.
There’s Don himself, whose therapy sessions are deadpan hilarious, because the way Tobias Menzies plays it, with a kind of glazed quizzicality, you never catch him doing anything wrong — you just see his patients sitting there, not connecting. There’s Beth’s sister (Michaela Watkins), a home decorating consultant with such a passive-aggressive relationship to the world that she can’t even volunteer for a church clothing give-away without getting into a fight with a homeless person who’s there to get an oversize shirt. There’s her husband (Arian Moayed, who’s like a puppyish Mark Ruffalo), a theater and film actor who can’t seem to make it to the next level. There’s Beth and Don’s son, Elliott (Owen Teague), a lanky slacker who works at a marijuana emporium but wants to be a writer like Beth. And there’s Beth and her sister’s mom, Georgia, played by Jeannie Berlin as a crusty mother hen whose mental decline only seems to have sharpened her elemental acid-tongued insight.
For close to half an hour, we have no idea where the movie is going, and we don’t care. We’re happy just to spend time watching Holofcener’s people reveal themselves with an alternating current of savagery and vulnerability. But then, out of the blue, “You Hurt My Feelings” coalesces into a situation. At the Paragon Sports store near Union Square, Beth and her sister happen to walk in and see that Don is there buying socks with his brother-in-law. They approach but stop short when they overhear what the two men are talking about. It’s Beth’s new novel. Don confesses that he didn’t actually like it. But he read so many drafts, and felt so committed to being encouraging, that he couldn’t bring himself to tell Beth what he really thought. Now he’s stuck in a lie he can’t get out of.
This is not a matter of overpraising someone’s pot roast. Beth’s writing is part of her identity, her core. That Don didn’t like her book — and deceived her about it — cuts her to the quick. It’s almost as if he was being unfaithful, a point the film underscores by having Beth rush out of the store and come close to throwing up in the middle of a New York street, deliberately evoking Jill Clayburgh’s meltdown in “An Unmarried Woman.” Louis-Dreyfus, a genius comedian, knows how to walk a balance beam between comedy and drama, but in this movie, for all the ruefully funny snap of her line readings, she makes Beth a grippingly serious character. She serves up unvarnished anger, along with the sheer anguished confusion that Beth feels at how the husband she trusted could have betrayed her.
But did he? If it were simply the case that Don, in pumping up Beth’s novel to her, did something weaselly and lame, then the course of action would be clear. He should come clean and promise to do better. But what Holofcener, a screwball entertainer-psychologist, is most interested in is not the fact that Don lied. It’s why he lied. Clearly, he wanted to support her. And the key to “You Hurt My Feelings” is that the entire movie turns into a satire of what has become our fetishistically supportive and oversensitive therapeutic culture of positivity. All these things, in a way, are necessary. But maybe, the film suggests, we have tried to heal ourselves a little too much. Maybe we need a little more naked honesty mixed in with the wellness.
“You Hurt My Feelings” traces how this theme plays out not just between Beth and Don but among all the characters. And that’s not a contrivance. It’s a sign of how the transcendent ideal of “support” has consumed everything in its path. Beth, we learn, had a father who called her “stupid” and “shit-for-brains,” which was part of what her memoir was about. (The film’s amusing comment on the publishing industry is that Beth doesn’t have a major story of abuse to sell — but at least her dad was verbally abusive!) The result of growing up that way is that she herself became intensely supportive. She treats each of her writing students like the next Zazie Smith, and she can’t stop into the pot store where Elliott works without offering him a bucket of support (along with a dozen donuts). Her philosophy is that it’s all good. But when does all good become too much of a good thing?
“You Hurt My Feelings” stays true to the droll casualness of its title. It’s not a major Holofcener movie; it’s closer to a lively and digressive short story. Yet it’s compelling to see Holofcener merge the fates of all her characters through a grand tweak of the piety of positivity. Beth, in the end, has to disentangle her ego from her work; Don has to become a tougher shrink; and Elliott, who grew up drowning in praise he didn’t deserve, has to convince his mother that she can love him without surrendering her sincerity. “You Hurt My Feelings” is small-scale, but it may just have a lesson for us all.