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'You Hurt My Feelings' Review

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May 24, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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After brief stops in television (directing episodes for Mrs. Fletcher, Extrapolations, and Lucky Hank) and the Middle Ages (penning the “The Truth according to Marguerite de Carrouges” portion of The Last Duel), writer/director Nicole Holofcener returns to her New York roots for You Hurt My Feelings, now bowing in theaters after premiering at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival.

The older we get, the more we come to realize that the childhood saying “honesty is the best policy” is not the unbreakable rule that we were led to believe. Sure, you should strive to be honest with people, especially those you care about the most. But the real world never invites simplicity, so we have to bend the truth a little to get by without as little damage as possible. What’s the worst that could happen anyway?

The obviously clichéd answer to that question is that a lot of catastrophic events would happen, either physically or emotionally (see Dancer in the Dark or The Hunt). But in all her deftness, Holofcener doesn’t reach for fire and brimstone. Instead, she puts a magnifying glass on a couple that has built a strong foundation, mining relevant truths out of their small-scale situation.

The specimens are Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Don (Tobias Menzies). Beth is a semi-successful writer who is putting the finishing touches on her new mystery fiction novel, which acts as a slight departure from her usual non-fiction work. Don is a therapist that seems to have lost his edge. He looks and sounds so tired that even the endlessly squabbling couple that he regularly sees (real-life partners David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) takes pity on him. Beth has been using Don as a writing resource these past few months, and he’s had nothing but praise for her work. That is until the nuclear bomb goes off (metaphorically of course).

Beth and her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) stumble upon Don and Sarah’s husband Mark at a specialized sock store (this is New York after all). They decide to sneak up on the men, but they end up getting more than they bargained for as they overhear Don telling Mark that he doesn’t think Beth’s new novel is good. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her, but he also feels the strain of letting her on with constant false encouragement.

Don’s admittance puts in doubt everything else he’s said over the years, as well as Beth’s belief in her skills as an author. But it’s not like Beth is a total victim here, as the shoe is often on the other foot. She’s always saying how her son’s upcoming work will be great, and that cosmetic surgery is a good idea for Don.

Holofcener could have taken the Green Book approach to her story, filling it with well-worn and clearly structured beats and ideas. But she’s smarter than that, as both she and we know this isn’t some problem that can ever really be solved. Most of us have to come to realize that a lot of our lives are comprised of filler words and feelings, with only a few times where we share our honest selves with others. And if that truth hurts, then sometimes it’s best to just keep the peace.

Louis-Dreyfus and Menzies have great chemistry together. Their calmness with each other sells their long-standing marriage, as well as pushing past some of the overly simplified final few scenes.

While clearly not alike in terms of style, You Hurt My Feelings reminded me of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster from 2016. Both movies take a stab at the long-standing battle between love and honesty without getting bogged down by solutions we’ve been fed all our lives. They also provide excellent counter-programming during the summer, acting as a refreshing cool down from the noise and explosions in the other rooms.

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