By Richard Ades
When a couple exchanges wedding vows, they promise to love and cherish each other, among other things. What they generally don’t promise is to be honest with each other.
Whether or not that’s a good thing is a topic writer-director Nicole Holofcener takes up in her entertaining and chuckle-worthy new film, You Hurt My Feelings.
Long-married New Yorkers Beth and Don (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies) love and support each other to a fault—the fault being that they occasionally express that support by telling little white lies.
When Don gives Beth earrings as an anniversary present, she greets them with such forced enthusiasm that it’s obvious she doesn’t like them. And when Beth reciprocates by giving Don a V-neck sweater, his disappointment is equally clear because his first comment is, “Oh, a V-neck.” (As all fans of Louis-Dreyfus’s former series, Seinfeld, know, saying the name of a gift after you open it is a sure sign you didn’t want it.)
All this is no big deal, right? When you’re in a relationship, telling the occasional little white lie can help you avoid hurt feelings or unnecessary friction.
But then Beth catches Don in a lie that doesn’t seem so little: She overhears him admitting to his brother-in-law that, even though he’s told Beth he loves the novel she’s been working on for the past two years, he actually hates it.
Beth is hurt and humiliated, telling sister and fellow eavesdropper Sarah (Michaela Watkins), “I can’t look him in the face ever again.” Sarah tries to soften the blow by admitting she tells actor-husband Mark (Arian Moayed) that he’s more talented than he actually is, but it seems the damage is done.
This unfortunate incident comes to dominate the flick, as well as supplying its title, but it’s actually just one of several examples of the fragile egos and self-doubts that afflict all the major characters.
Aspiring novelist Beth worries she won’t be able to duplicate the success of her previous work, a memoir about growing up with an abusive father. (Not that the memoir was as successful as it might have been if her father hadn’t been just verbally abusive, she muses ruefully.)
Don, a therapist who seems to be chronically tired, has trouble keeping his clients straight, and he worries that he’s not helping them get any better. Sarah, an interior designer, has similar fears about pleasing her clients, while Mark suspects he’s really not such a great actor.
Finally, there’s Beth and Don’s 23-year-old son, Eliot (Owen Teague), who’s working on a play that he fears is no good, while dating a woman who he worries will break up with him.
My one quibble with the way all this trauma is acted out is that Louis-Dreyfus falls back on her old Elaine Benes mannerisms at one or two inopportune moments. Otherwise, everyone’s great, including the several supporting actors who play Mark’s eccentric and generally dissatisfied clients.
With its New York setting, sardonic wit and neurotic characters, You Hurt My Feelings may strike some as a lighter, gentler version of early Woody Allen. But Holofcener is really doing her own thing with this portrait of everyday worries and squabbles, giving viewers a breezily pleasant hour and a half in the process.
Rating; 4 stars (out of 5)
You Hurt My Feelings (rated R) opens May 26 in select theaters.