Friday 10 November 2023

On demand: "You Hurt My Feelings"

Bundled disdainfully onto streaming here in the UK, Nicole Holofcener's latest You Hurt My Feelings is both another gilt-edged example of the Film for Adults the movie business once had far greater confidence in and an exploration of an intriguingly underdramatised theme: the expression of hostility within otherwise loving relationships. A charmingly relaxed first act - a double-edged sword from a commercial perspective, one assumes, making the film appear less than pressing as a theatrical option - sets out a succession of scenes in which people you've seen and liked in other films and shows shoot the breeze about everything and nothing in particular. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as neurotic author Beth, can be seen consuming fully two separate ice creams before any narrative thrust is established ("I'm not rushing"); her onscreen sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) spends the entire movie on a sidequest for the perfect lightbulb. Belatedly the film arrives at that plot thrust - what happens when Beth is forced into the kind of confrontation most of us spend our days doing our darnedest to avoid - yet You Hurt My Feelings is less loosey-goosey than it appears on the surface. With a dramatic slyness that hasn't always been so apparent in her work, Holofcener is luring us in: she makes the New York of the film sunny and genial so that the betrayal we witness at its centre (Beth overhearing rational therapist husband Tobias Menzies casually diss her latest manuscript while in conversation with Sarah's other half) hits all the more. What she's getting at is quite particular to literary circles but won't, I'd venture, be entirely unknown out there: how easy cohabitation - how habituation - sometimes gives rise to carelessness or thoughtlessness.

As betrayals go, this one's hilarious in itself: I don't think it matters for a moment that a dolt like Menzies' Don, whose all-star patients seem to regard him with a comparable indifference, doesn't get what's in the manuscript. In the grand scheme of things (war in Eastern Europe and now the Middle East, the prevalence of guns in America, the actual aches and pains of the girls' ailing mother Jeannie Berlin), it's trivial. Yet Holofcener is blessed with understanding enough to know how even the mildest criticism or shrugging response to our daily endeavours can sting terribly. The laughs in You Hurt My Feelings develop organically from the characters' sensitivity. Placid little ripples of upset give way to full-on, geyser-like eruptions of discontent in the film's second half; one quasi-encrypted, quietly poignant chuckle lies in the realisation that, however successful, moneyed and loved Beth plainly is, she still believes she simply isn't good enough. This, Holofcener concludes, is the true human condition: our skins are habitually thin. (There's a quiet genius about that title: as with much of the dialogue here, it's at once plaintive and childish - thus funny - and yet a very real acknowledgement of hurt incurred.) Such writing is, naturally, a gift to actors. These words are microaggressions, tapered like shivs; the performers have to decide how and when best to deploy each line's sharper edges. Louis-Dreyfus - the American Binoche, and arguably the best damn reader of scripts in the business entire - gets in a deflating early blow, winding one of her writing students with a merciless "that is a fantastic first draft". Owen Teague, as Beth and Don's lovelorn son Eliot, unleashes the year's funniest C-bomb, doubly explosive for landing in such a delicate and self-doubting environment. We've all done You Hurt My Feelings a disservice, by letting it slope off to Prime to be kept in reserve for a rainy day; comedy done with this much insight and skill, that reminds us honesty is still (just about) the best policy, should never be taken for granted, particularly in a world where mirthless untruths are beginning to run rampant. I wonder how much of the film is personal to this creative, and how much she's just picked up on what's out there in the ether; either way, if ever a partner has sniffed at Holofcener's own writing, then they would be a very great fool indeed.

You Hurt My Feelings is now streaming on Prime.

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