There’s a feeling of blank surprise in watching writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s new film You Hurt My Feelings. Not only because it’s such a weak, limp, plodding comedy — even with Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing the lead. The real surprise is watching this type of film, one that seems to have become so totally obsolete in the 2020s, you can’t even believe you’re seeing a new version of it.
You Hurt My Feelings is the one about the small cluster of affluent white people in an upper-class enclave of New York City who live incredibly well doing those kinds of jobs virtually nobody gets to do anymore. There’s Beth (Louise-Dreyfus), a pop memoirist/fiction writer, who also teaches writing at the New School. There’s her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), an “incredibly overpaid” therapist. Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), is a successful interior decorator, and her husband, Mark (Arian Moayad), is a stage and film actor.
But they’re so whiny and discontented about their professions they’re all vaguely planning to quit and do “something else”?
Something else? Like what? You don’t want to be a writer living in luxury anymore, after getting a bit of criticism on your latest manuscript, so you become . . . a princess? An astronaut? A movie star? I don’t know — what do people who have everything do about their hangnail problems when they’re convinced hangnails are an outrage and they’re entitled to far better, hangnail-free lives?
After a whole kerfuffle over Beth’s wounded feelings when she overhears her husband Don telling pal Mark that he doesn’t really like Beth’s new book, she’s gradually persuaded that everybody tells white lies to get along with the people in their lives, a grade school–level observation that never develops further. The main characters all learn small lessons about human frailty and the value of love and acceptance, and then carry on with their cushy jobs and fine dining and theatergoing and occasional charity work. Just when Beth and Don have finally accepted that their son Elliott (Owen Teague) works a mere ordinary-person job at a lowly pot dispensary, he finishes the first draft of his screenplay and presents it to them. Saved from professional mediocrity!
Amber Tamblyn and David Cross play a couple regularly consulting Don the therapist — the worst therapist ever, judging by what we see. After the couple demands $33,000 worth of reimbursement for two years’ worth of unsuccessful marriage counseling, he finally gets up the gumption to tell them they clearly hate each other and ought to divorce. He can’t seem to figure out that incessant, sneering combat is the basis for their entire relationship and that they like it that way. He really ought to get out more, or at least watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This was all once Woody Allen’s dish — affluent white people living in material luxury in Manhattan, making themselves neurotically miserable over their personal relationships and minor downturns in the upturns of their fabulous careers. But there’s one key difference separating Annie Hall (1977), say, from something like You Hurt My Feelings. Pariah though he is now, it must be acknowledged that Woody Allen was once funny as hell, and that required a certain amount of real insight. Allen didn’t respect his own comic ability, as he himself admitted, and he ruined his filmography making increasingly solemn, high-minded, would-be-philosophical crap. But once upon a time, he was a formidable wit.
It makes sense that Holofcener’s filmmaking is descended from Allen’s, because she practically grew up on Allen’s film sets. Her stepfather, Charles H. Joffe, was the producer of almost all of Allen’s film work, giving Joffe the peak experience of accepting the Best Picture Oscar on Annie Hall.
In fact, to be fair, Holofcener’s life is very much like her film characters’. They’re “special” people who have money and are wired into the art and entertainment industries and who really can decide to give up successful sculpting for songwriting, or successful songwriting for acting. Her father was sculptor-songwriter-actor Lawrence Holofcener, and after divorcing him and marrying Joffe, her mother Carol Joffe became a set decorator, earning Academy Award nominations for two Woody Allen films, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Radio Days (1987).
With a background like this, Holofcener can honestly be seen as making “slice-of-life” films, however rarified. Critics love them because they’ve been trained to adore this kind of film, with its complacent New Yorker sensibility. It’s funnier than the movie is — the automatic critical praise of the film’s supposedly incisive, mordant humor, and the way it’s seen as taking on burning issues like middle-aged malaise. Even when Holofcener’s just wallowing around among familiar figures, generating lukewarm chuckles while treating them all fondly, she gets credit for being a bold satirist: “No American director’s more committed to exposing the smugness and self-aggrandizement of bourgeois urbanites.”
I’d had hope, when I first read a summary of You Hurt My Feelings, that Holofcener really meant to delve into the complicated necessity of lying, a kind of following up on Jane Austen’s line in Pride and Prejudice, “Honesty is a greatly overrated virtue.” But her idea of taking on the role lying plays in relationships goes no further than things like “exposing” how Beth and Don consistently lie about liking the presents each gives the other, or how Sarah lies to Mark about some of the performances he gives, though in her actual opinion, they’re not always so hot.
Such marshmallow instances of lying are hardly worth any kind of moral extrapolation. And such sluggish, laugh-free films as this can hardly even be called a “comedy.”