“You Hurt My Feelings”: Relationship Comedy Perfection

“You Hurt My Feelings”: Relationship Comedy Perfection

(4 stars)

At the start of “You Hurt My Feelings”, a therapist named Don (Tobias Menzies) ends a Zoom session with a client. After seeing that they were making real progress, Don begins to disconnect, only to hear his patient mutter, “God, what an idiot.

It’s a laugh line, but also a moment of genius from writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose favorite place is the funny, sad, mortifying, and hovering moments of being human. In “You Hurt My Feelings,” the cardinal emotion is self-deception, specifically the lengths we go to protect the most cherished mythologies of the people we love.

Since its stunning debut in 1996 with “Walking and Talking”, Holofcener has been one of the inexplicably best-kept secrets in American cinema. His name deserves to be as instantly recognizable as Woody Allen or Judd Apatow. “You Hurt My Feelings” finds Holofcener at the top of his already formidable game, toning down the nuances of intimacy, ambivalence, failure and tireless hope with observant humor and boundless generosity – but not too sweet.

“You Hurt My Feelings” opens with one of Don’s sessions, involving a constantly bickering couple played with fun acid by David Cross and Amber Tamblyn, then cuts to his wife, Beth (Julia Louis- Dreyfus), author and professor of creative writing. Beth has published a moderately successful memoir centering on the verbal abuse she suffered as a child, and is working on a novel, about which she has nagging doubts: her agent avoids her, and when she goes to a neighborhood bookstore, she sees a blurb for another memoir – “Readily close to perfect!” – and immediately covers it with a copy of his own.

If Beth is a bundle of insecurities, at least Don is unconditionally on her side: He read each of the several drafts of his new book with unflinching enthusiasm. But when she hears him admit he doesn’t like it, her world descends into chaos. The lie Don told to support his wife, through another lens, is nothing short of a betrayal. Even more existentially threatening is the question of how he can love Beth if he doesn’t love her job.

These issues can feel like a hill of beans typical of the prosperous and sometimes superficial Manhattanites who populate “You Hurt My Feelings.” But Holofcener never trivializes their pain, even though she looks at it with a playful, yellowish eye. The film’s themes are echoed in a number of subplots involving Don’s clients and Beth’s family. The couple’s son Elliot (Owen Teague) works through his own issues, wondering if Beth’s praise has set him off. His sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) is married to Mark (“Succession’s” Arian Moayed), a struggling actor who deals with auditions, rejections and his chronic need for validation. Meanwhile, Beth’s insistence on complete honesty is challenged by her mother Georgia (Jeannie Berlin), who is nothing if not judgmental every time they get together.

As in all Holofcener films, there are hilarious lines in “You hurt me,” which Louis-Dreyfus delivers with characteristic subtlety, such as when she barely stifles a “surprisingly” while complimenting the news of a pupil. (Since starring in the tongue-in-cheek 2013 romantic comedy “Enough Said,” Louis-Dreyfus has become as reliable a Holofcener avatar as Catherine Keener, who has appeared in most of the filmmaker’s films.)

In keeping with Holofcener’s oeuvre, the comedy of “You Hurt My Feelings” isn’t made up of setups and zingers so much as fleeting, indelible moments, in this case paired with superb rhythm and delicacy by the editor Alisa Lepselter. (The film was beautifully shot by Jeffrey Waldron and the warmly melodious score is by Michael Andrews.) Every parent will recognize an argument between mother and young adult son that boils with unspoken hostility and frustration, until he asks, “Wait, mom, do we have any bagels?” In another scene, the movie “An Unmarried Woman” becomes an equally relevant punchline.

The most obvious pleasures of “You Hurt My Feelings” are in those laugh-out-loud sequences, but the film gains steady speed and unexpected depth in the way Holofcener gently guides its characters through choppy emotional waters, their allowing it to rock around a bit, but never to capsize completely. As a chronicle of the pains we all take just to get through the day, “You Hurt My Feelings” rings eerily true. Like a slice of life embellished with a biting humor and without cynicism, it is deliciously entertaining. In other words, it’s another Holofcener movie, which means it’s dangerously close to perfection.

R In neighborhood theatres. Contains coarse language. 93 mins.

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