3.5 out of 5 stars

‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’ read the tagline for Love Story (1970), the now nearly forgotten box office smash. John Lennon later countered with “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Now comes a fine new film, You Hurt My Feelings, to warn us in a funny fashion that every five seconds might not be enough.

The film resembles Woody Allen’s comedies of manners set in New York during the late-1970s and early-1980s (Annie HallManhattanHannah and Her Sisters). In that period, Allen created witty and scabrous portraits of the Big Apple’s ultra-talented intelligentsia; members of the meritocracy under siege by their petty neuroses. 

Writer-producer-director Nicole Holofcener is of the next generation after Allen’s, so it’s no surprise she sees a different New York. You Hurt My Feelings steps down the social ladder from ‘the meritocracy’ to ‘the mediocracy’, creating an entertaining comic portrait of New Yorkers whom Allen’s characters would dismiss as wannabes and never-wases; people who have to settle for a table at the Olive Garden instead of Le Bernardin.

The story centres around a white lie, the ones we tell to spare the feelings of those whom we love to preserve our bonds with them in the touching, if sometimes erroneous belief, that no further harm will come. Sometimes, the truth shouldn’t out. Honest opinion, transient and of the moment, should stand aside for the sake of love.

The liar in question is Don (Tobias Menzies), a psychotherapist who mumbles therapeutic platitudes and asks inane questions to a murderer’s row of unpleasant patients. Chief among these, and most hilarious, is Jonathan (David Cross) and Carolyn (Amber Tamblyn), a fractious couple who, after $30,000 worth of therapy over 10 years, still wage marital war with a savage glee that would make Edward Albee blanch. Don’s confidence is further undermined by Jim (Zach Cherry), a sneering misanthrope who casts snide aspersions on Don’s therapeutic competence. Indeed, he may have a point—Don’s not much of a therapist.

The lied-to is Don’s wife, Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the mildly successful author of the mid-selling trauma memoir I Had to Tell It, a book that’s made a small plop rather than a big splash. In a market drowning in, smothered by, and overrun with trauma memoirs, it’s possible Beth was insufficiently abused, as her own agent tells her. (How much suffering must a writer undergo to climb the bestseller lists!? Oh, the injustice!)

Even so, Beth’s first book has given her enough confidence—a fuel she’s short on—to start her own writers’ workshop. Here, she’s dismayed to learn, her young students haven’t even heard of her book, though most of them are writing similar trauma memoirs (save for one blessed soul who aims to write about someone not himself). Nevertheless, she’s soldiering on with her second tome, a mystery novel, which is nearing completion (and which, Don assures her, is simply wonderful, with the same fervour that she assures him he’s a great therapist). But as it is with Don, so it is with Beth: she’s not much of a writer.

Beth and Don stand united in their so-so-ness and their insecurity. They mutually support each other down to the absolute last, melded head to toe in marital bliss, sharing everything, even ice cream cones, a perfect mirror to the other. Whatever the rest of the world thinks, to each other, they’re the greatest ever as they paper over their differences with clever banter and loyal, even touching, affection.

Not everyone is charmed by all this bliss: their listless son Elliott (Owen Teague), facing life in retail cannabis, finds his parents’ open mutual affection alienating, hypocritical, and, of course, gross (as affectionate older couples always are).

Then, one day, the truth slips out: while out and about with her sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), a run-of-the-mill interior designer, Beth comes upon Don and Sarah’s husband, Mark (Arian Moyaed), a not-too-good actor, who’s browsing at the boutique sock shop. Beth sneaks up, hoping to surprise him, but the surprise is on her when she overhears Don shamefacedly confessing to Mark that he doesn’t like Beth’s new book at all.

With these fateful, but candid, words, Beth’s and Don’s marriage starts falling apart. Overwhelmed with shame, Beth turns on Don, who responds in therapist mode with pat excuses and responses that only throw more gas on the fire. As many a man knows, there’s nothing you can say that won’t make it worse, and the only direction in which you can shovel is deeper.

From there, the fire spreads, exposing the other small lies that everyone in their circle of friends tell each other. In this film, everyone becomes a drama queen. Or king.

You Hurt My Feelings is more than a comedy of manners about the games we play with each other and our overreaction when the game’s rules are broken. It’s also about solipsism, about people comically trapped in their subjectivity, unable to step back and see themselves and the world clearly. The film could’ve become a raging bonfire of mediocrity, but it strikes a forgiving tone, maybe at times too forgiving. (The final shot sets up the possibility for one more flash of wit that the film misses.) 

I’m unacquainted with Holofcener’s other work (except for episodes she directed for the 2023 streaming comedy Lucky Hank). She writes excellent witty banter in the manner of Allen and Noel Coward. As a director, she keeps the right comic distance, while cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron (working with a special camera and post-production colour work), shoots with a brighter, softer palette than the harsh light and hues of Allen’s films. You Hurt My Feelings shows a sunnier and, maybe glibber, New York, than Allen ever portrayed.

The film’s comic success is due mostly to the actors, of course. In Veep (2012-19), Julia Louis-Dreyfus played with great flair a woman at the top who knows she’s in way over her head. Here, she’s again a master of self-doubt as a woman who’s made it halfway up the ladder and must face the fact that’s about as far as she’s going to get. Menzies plays Don as a man of charming obtuseness who gains enough wisdom to realise his limits. He and Louis-Dreyfus make for a fine pair of ambitious people who, behind their pleasant facades, will have to somehow live with being just good enough. Even people who aren’t particularly good at what they do deserve their moment in the spotlight.


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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Nicole Holofcener.
starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague, Jeannie Berlin, David Cross & Amber Tamblyn.