Writer-director Nicole Holofcener returns with a deeply satisfying relationship comedy that finds emotional connection through human fallibility.
This article discusses minor plot details from “You Hurt My Feelings.”
Two years ago, Nicole Holofcener was working on a slightly different idea for “You Hurt My Feelings,” her hilarious and tender new relationship comedy about, well, a number of things, but chiefly the question of whether to be nice and supportive or tell the truth. And as is true in its final version, it hinged on the ever-pressing concern over what one can or cannot say.
Or rather what one should say, in this case, to their romantic partner.
With “You Hurt My Feelings” now in theaters, Holofcener still grapples with these awkward, often uncomfortable moments that come to define us in romantic as well as social situations.
On a video call from her Los Angeles home, for example, she recounted a recent scenario when her mother attended a screening of the film and totally put her foot in her mouth. “So, I have a gay male couple who are good friends, and she introduced one as the wife to somebody,” the director told me. “She said, ‘He’s his wife.’”
Holofcener is right there with me as if she, too, was hearing this story for the first time. “What could she have been thinking?” she said. “Even then she was like ― well, I don’t even want to go into it. She’s a very liberal, lovely person. But it just flew out. If this person wasn’t a good friend, [he] might have taken great offense. He’s a grown man. He’s nobody’s wife.”
But it’s these kinds of human foibles, despite people’s best intentions, that she enjoys exploring in her movies — from her 1996 debut “Walking and Talking” to “Friends with Money” and “Enough Said.” They often include inane encounters between strangers on the street or longtime friends or lovers sharing unwanted or unsolicited truths, sometimes at the most unfortunate times.
“People just step in it all the time,” Holofcener said.
Her films often derive from Holofcener’s own personal experiences, stories she’s been told, or feelings and insecurities she’s had to confront (often with the help of a therapy session). This gives each one a sense of intimacy, sharing some of her own fallibility with her audience.
“You Hurt My Feelings” is no exception. There’s a moment in the movie when Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Beth, an author, plunks down on an elegant chair in a pretentious furniture store next to her interior designer sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins). Then Beth takes a very crumbly cookie from her purse to eat until an aghast Sarah chides her.
“When she flops down on that fancy chair and pulls out a cookie — my friends laugh because it just is so me,” Holofcener said. “Or to be obnoxious and say, ‘How much is this bench?’ That’s the unfiltered part of me. She’s not going to buy the bench, but she can’t close her mouth.”
Holofcener can obviously relate: “And yet if I think something is obscene or really wrong somehow, I’ll let somebody know about it, and I’m still learning to keep my mouth shut.”
The filmmaker questions whether Louis-Dreyfus, who also starred in her 2013 hit “Enough Said,” walks and responds in “You Hurt My Feelings” as she would, like her friends have noted. But she admits that Beth is “the Nicole character, for sure.”
After spending just under an hour with her through our computer screens, I can sense some of the similarities between Holofcener and her most recent lead character. For one, as forthright as both she and Beth can be at times, they also find it difficult to accept opinions of their work.
That’s the dilemma at the center of “You Hurt My Feelings.” Beth, who’s also a writing instructor, overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) tell his friend Mark (Arian Moayed) that he doesn’t like any drafts of the book she’s working on. But, of course, he keeps telling her that he does. Because he’s a supportive partner and understands that is the right thing to say.
Upon learning that, Beth is devastated and goes into a tailspin. She gives Don the silent treatment and decides to sleep on the couch. And in true Louis-Dreyfus fashion, this is all played with a delicate balance of deadpan humor and rich pathos. Her feelings are, well, hurt ― and understandably so.
Still, is it the fact that Don doesn’t like her book or that he lied about liking the book that is most damning? That’s what “You Hurt My Feelings” wades in.
For Holofcener, it’s Don’s continuous lying about the book that makes what he did so wrong. But that’s also a bit complicated. “I think you can tell the truth and be supportive and nice up to a degree,” she said. “If somebody shows me something that’s not finished and I like it in general or like it enough, then I can be supportive and nice and critical.”
She considered that answer a bit more. “I think I can give notes or good ideas or something,” Holofcener continued. “Or say, ‘I don’t really love this genre, but I think it’s well written.’”
But what if there isn’t any way around something that is just not good? Holofcener said that’s when the lie is necessary.
“I’m grateful for that because I don’t always want people to tell me the truth,” she added. “If my film is done and there’s nothing to be done about it, and someone says to me, ‘I just didn’t like it,’ ‘I was bored,’ ‘[It] wasn’t funny’ or ‘I like your other movies better’ — Don’t say that to me.”
Hearing certain responses to her work makes her feel vulnerable. “Sometimes I imagine being told that they love my film or script, and I’m so happy they feel that way,” she said. “And then finding out they didn’t. My face alone makes me want to just curl up and die.”
For her, it’s about gaining a sense of “validation,” despite whether it’s based in truth, and trying to roll with it either way. “Maybe if I’d been a cool cucumber — ‘Oh, good. Oh, great. I don’t know if you’re lying or telling the truth’ — it would be less embarrassing.”
This is probably a good time to share that I told Holofcener at the start of our conversation that “You Hurt My Feelings” is genuinely really good and funny. To which she replied, with a now recognized (and perhaps contrived?) coolness, “Oh, good!”
“The need for approval is just written on my face,” Holofcener added. “And generally everybody’s face who makes something creative or personal or artistic.”
That feeling has been shared recently by other storytellers. The specificity at the center of “You Hurt My Feelings,” though, is that Beth naturally expects that kind of affirmation from her own husband, whose opinion as a therapist she respects and to whom she’s otherwise had a perfect marriage. When she learns she doesn’t have it, it feels to her like a betrayal.
How she responds to that is where the drama meets the comedy in the film, and what Beth and Don have to ultimately try to find a way to work through. “I felt like this is what happens in a marriage,” the filmmaker said. “We hurt each other’s feelings or we make mistakes — some of them bigger than others. But if you love that person, you can maybe work it out.”
Beth isn’t the only one going through an inadequacy spiral. Each of the central characters, including Don, is in the thick of one. Mark, an actor, is stopped for a selfie for a role he’s not proud of and begins to question his career. Sarah starts to realize that she doesn’t even like the pompous people whose homes she adorns and ponders the point of her work.
Holofcener has wrestled with these same feelings. “People say, ‘Well, what you’re doing is valuable to other people,’” she said. “But I’m not in Afghanistan being valuable, and there’s absolutely no comparison. So, this is my life. This is what I’ve chosen. But I do feel guilty that my life is not devoted to more important things.”
This isn’t the type of candor you’d expect from an accomplished storyteller like Holofcener. But she’s spent so much of her career exploring the human emotions and supposed moral infirmities that are often kept hidden that it shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who’ve been paying attention.
For instance, cannabis shop manager-slash-aspiring playwright Eliot (Owen Teague), Beth and Don’s son, reckons with how much his parents have showered him with endless accolades all his life, particularly for his writing that they’ve never actually read. As a result, he finds his inflated sense of self disgruntling.
That’s another instance in “You Hurt My Feelings” where the truth, rather than unrelenting praise, might have served much better. But like with Don’s lie, it’s difficult to know for sure until after the fact.
Meanwhile, Don’s clients — including an acerbically hilarious pair played by real-life couple Amber Tamblyn and David Cross — are so dissatisfied with his work that they actually request a whopping refund.
This feeling of discontent is pulled from Holofcener’s own experiences that she wanted to explore in “You Hurt My Feelings.”
“Most people are way too afraid to confront their therapists,” she said. “And I had a good time having them actually admit, ‘You’re a shitty shrink’ and ‘Why am I paying all this money to you?’”
She went on to say that, in her own experience, most therapists actually want you to confront them and tell them how you feel about their sessions.
“With my therapist, if I say, ‘Well, you said something that bothered me,’ the pen comes out and the paper comes out, and she’s leaning into me, and it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s talk about this,’” Holofcener said. “Because, ultimately, that’s what therapy is, I think.”
But Don’s clients don’t actually tell them their issues with his work. It’s clear some aren’t pleased, while others just ask for their money back. It’s more like they were hoping to be fixed somehow, realize that they weren’t, and demand restitution for that.
“But he let them down,” Holofcener said. “I mean, he just lets them go. I’ve been in couples therapy where that happens and it’s like, ‘We could be doing this at home. We could spend the $300 on a nice dinner.’”
“It might solve our problems better than this,” the director added dryly.
Be that as it may, $300 dinners or thousands of dollars in therapy isn’t an available option to everyone. We’re talking about privileged, mostly white characters struggling to deal with unfamiliar and uncomfortable feelings — some for the first time. Was their sense of comfort something Holofcener wanted to disrupt in this story?
“I can’t say that,” she answered. “I mean, I was perfectly aware of their privilege, their money, their careers, their lifestyle. I wanted to challenge the marriage and their comfort zones, for sure. But I wasn’t feeling like, ’Oh, I need to punish these white, privileged people with discomfort.”
What makes these characters really work is that they navigate a spectrum of human emotions with which many can identify. Most pressingly, profound insecurity, a deflated sense of purpose and an unexpected ability to find humor in the worst situations.
Like when Beth, Don and Sarah sit down for a birthday dinner for Mark. Beth, consumed by Don’s lie, finally blurts out that she heard what he said to Mark, making things very uncomfortable at the dinner table and essentially ruining Mark’s celebration. It’s one of the funniest, most earnest sequences in the movie.
“I did feel it was important to point out that the world is falling apart, and yet we have our own small lives,” Holofcener continued. “[It] doesn’t really change the fact that we have hurt feelings or desires or ambition, or we love to shop or we’re vain about our appearance. It can all be true.”
It’s a “weird conundrum,” the director added. But these emotions all coalesce from the space Holofcener was in as she was writing “You Hurt My Feelings.” As she recalled, she was turning 60 or 61 and, like the characters in the film, debating her purpose and value — especially because she was having trouble bringing the film to fruition.
“I thought I’d had it,” she said. “I thought this might be it. And I was so depressed, incredibly depressed, that I thought, ‘What is my purpose if I can’t do this anymore?’ And I tend to have anxiety and depression anyway, but it’s miraculous to me that I am now in this position.”
Holofcener described it as “sitting real pretty,” but that was far from the case a few years ago. “I thought, ‘I’m too old,’” she said. “Also, I find that my track record doesn’t often help me, and that’s really disappointing. I think a lot of guys will make a flop and continue to make flop after flop. And I don’t think I’m given that…” she searched for the right word.
“Yeah,” she responded. “That it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s done this really well many, many times. She’ll do it again.’ I still have to prove myself a lot.”
That’s even with critically acclaimed TV shows and films under her belt, including an Oscar nomination for co-writing 2018’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
While she’s not, in her words, a “prolific” filmmaker — she’s only made seven movies in the last 27 years — she continues to give us sincere, deeply satisfying stories about shared human experiences. Her characters, including Beth, aren’t people who have major epiphanies or become different people by the end of the movie like we see in so much Hollywood fare.
Rather, like Holofcener, they’re still in progress.
“What has happened has informed them as human beings and their relationship and how they might deal with something differently in the future, or how they might deal with telling their son what they think of his play,” she said. “It’s also me saying this thing does not end. Just goes on.”
That’s real life.
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