Everyone’s avoiding the bitter truth in smart, authentic film ‘You Hurt My Feelings’

Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivers smashingly good work as a novelist who overhears her husband being bluntly honest.

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One slip of the tongue prompts a reassessment of the marriage between Don (Tobias Menzies) and Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in “You Hurt My Feelings.”

A24

It’s all in the details.

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings” is an absolute marvel — a miniaturist gem in which every scene feels authentic and of this life, and every character, even the ones who wander in for a moment or two before getting on with their lives, rings true. If you’re looking for a smart, insightful, slightly cynical yet warmhearted and consistently smile-inducing slice of life reminiscent of the best character-driven films of the 1970s, punch your ticket right here.

Ten years after Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus teamed up for the engaging and quite brilliant “Enough Said,” they’re clicking once again here, with Louis-Dreyfus delivering smashingly good work as Beth, a novelist and essayist who teaches fiction writing at the New School in Greenwich Village. She holds court over a half-dozen students who eagerly soak in her words of wisdom even though we eventually find out none of them has read Beth’s recent memoir and a few seem surprised to learn she’s written, you know, books.

‘You Hurt My Feelings’

Untitled

A24 presents a film written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. Rated R (for language). Running time: 93 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Beth is happily married to Don (Tobias Menzies), a therapist who apparently has a thriving practice but seems to be slipping on the job, e.g., mixing up his patients’ problems and often incurring the wrath of a bickering couple (played with biting hilarity by real-life spouses David Cross and Amber Tamblyn), who have been coming to Don for years and are starting to wonder if he sucks, given they still seem to hate each other.

Holofcener does a magnificent job of weaving in a number of story threads. Beth and her sister Sarah (the sublime Michaela Watkins, who improves every movie she’s in) do volunteer work matching secondhand clothes to unhoused customers, but they’re not above getting into spats with the clientele. Sarah is married to the laid-back Mark (Arin Moayed), a stage and film actor who still gets recognized for some goofball movie he did a decade ago but is beginning to question his career path. Beth and Sarah’s mother, Georgia (Jeannie Berlin), is starting to slip a little mentally, but she’s still armed with a rapier wit and minces no words when dealing with her daughters.

Then there’s Beth and Don’s son, Elliott (a terrific Owen Teague), who aspires to be a writer like Beth but has a post-collegiate job working in a marijuana dispensary and might never finish that script he’s been working on. After Elliott’s unseen girlfriend dumps him, sending him into a spiral of depression, he moves back home with his parents and is reminded of how their devotion to one another can make him feel like a third wheel.

“You Hurt My Feelings” ambles along nicely for a number of scenes and you begin to wonder where it’s all going — and that’s when Beth overhears Don confiding to Mark that even though he’s been nothing but encouraging to Beth as she has worked draft after draft of her novel, he doesn’t like it at all. In a moment with clear echoes of “An Unmarried Woman,” Beth dashes outside and comes close to throwing up on the street. No, Don isn’t having an affair, but in some ways this betrayal feels even worse to Beth; he has been lying to her about her passion, her life’s work, the thing she does.

Yes, yes yes, I know: first-world, upper-middle class problems, right? Still, this is no minor crisis in a marriage that has sailed along for more than 20 years, a marriage that had seemed unshakable. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies conduct a master class in acting as Beth and Don finally confront the elephant in the room and learn it’s not just one beast but a sizable herd. Not that it ever turns into some kind of scorched-Earth blow-up on the scale of a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or “Marriage Story.” This is played in a quieter key, and the revelations are equal parts funny and eye-opening.

Though I mentioned that 1970s vibe, “You Hurt My Feelings” is also very much of our time, with the satire often cutting into our current Supportive Culture, where everybody is always telling everybody else how great they are. Don tells Beth her writing is terrific even when he doesn’t believe that to be the case, Beth has always told Don he’s a great therapist, but she doesn’t really know that’s true, and Sarah always compliments Mark’s performances, regardless of quality. It might sound like privileged whining when Elliott complains that his mother was TOO supportive of him when he was growing up, but he has a point. In some cases, she was actually setting him up for failure and disappointment. Is everyone just lying to each other, or is this how you demonstrate love and unwavering support?

Maybe it’s both. Or neither. Or somewhere in between.

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