Nicole Holofcener questions the efficacy of little white lies
On a lunch hour picnic with his parents, Eliot (Owen Teague) grimaces with disdain while they share a single ice cream cone. When his mom, Beth (Julia-Louis Dreyfus), asks him if he’d like to try it—after both she and her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), have licked it several times—Eliot frowns again, declines and retreats back to his job at a weed dispensary.
During the first half hour of Nicole Holofcener’s observational dramedy, You Hurt My Feelings, Beth and Don’s long term marriage is nestling upon an idyllic upper middle class plateau. Beth, a published author and creative writing teacher, has recently completed a novel. The film cuts between her classes, Don’s therapy sessions with his patients and their domestic life at home in a pleasant New York City flat.
Holofcener decides to interrupt the bliss of their shared meal plans by catching Don in a little white lie. After Beth accompanies her sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), an interior designer, to look for lighting fixtures, they decide to surprise their husbands, who are out on a parallel errand shopping for socks. Already rattled because her editor is unenthusiastic about her novel, Beth overhears a conversation between Don and Mark (Arian Moayed), Sarah’s husband.
Don hasn’t had the heart to tell Beth he doesn’t like her novel. Stunned by this admission, Beth’s expression crumples. After she leaves the store without confronting Don, Beth’s face turns red with tears of sadness and indignation. Later that night, Beth deploys a series of expertly thrown passive aggressive poisonous darts at Don. When he sits down on the couch next to her, her back stiffens and she moves away from him. She refuses to look him in the eye, responding to his bafflement with terse monosyllables.
Peering in on these privileged lives, it looks like Beth is overreacting, colliding with criticism she isn’t prepared to deal with. Beth’s sensitivity and naivety are light years away from Selina Meyer’s hardened emotional makeup, the character Louis-Dreyfus inhabited for several years on HBO’s Veep. When Beth tells Sarah she feels that Don’s betrayed her trust, it’s clear she’s been triggered. Her memoir is an excavation of all the verbal abuse her father doled out. She still repeats one of his insults to herself late at night.
But this verbal abuse, which is alluded to several times, is diminished by her editor. She tells Beth there are more pressing stories waiting to be published. Beth doesn’t come across as self-important; she’s been protected by a shield of self-delusion, enabled, in part, by her caring husband. She looks taken aback when she finds out that none of her students have heard of, let alone have read, her memoir. She also coddles her students in the same way her husband has gently lied to her. Beth’s unaware of and unwilling to look at her own hypocritical behavior.
This conflict wears thin almost immediately, but is supplemented by the director’s characteristic skill at managing a variety of sardonic subplots. Beth and Don smooth over their misunderstanding well before the end of You Hurt My Feelings. Sarah, Mark, Eliot and Don’s patients populate the movie with a chorus of comic characters who’ve all also had their feelings hurt. Beth’s not the only person in New York dealing with inner turmoil and personal trauma.
Menzies’ Don emerges as a hapless therapist without any insight into his patients’ problems or the ability to help them. The more we see of his ineptness at work, the easier it is to understand how his marriage with Beth has worked for as long as it has. They’re both overly polite with each other, deferring in conversational half-truths. When they both admit to having hated each other’s years of anniversary gift giving, the scene stretches the credulity of their relationship.
This is a portrait of a marriage without any problematic sparks of unkindness. The shared ice cream cone is the only glimpse of their sexual compatibility and the likely reason Eliot flashes a snarl of visible disgust.
As in Holofcener’s 2010 film, Please Give, she offsets the protagonist’s privilege—Beth has plenty of time and money to indulge in her neuroses—with Beth and Sarah’s volunteer work at a church. They also regularly check in on their eccentric, acerbic mother (Jeannie Berlin). Without showing these flawed characters behaving decently, the director would have a much harder time eliciting sympathy for them.
‘You Hurt My Feelings’ opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, May 26.