Among filmmakers, Nicole Holofcener is the great poet of microannoyances. She’s attuned to those little things that bother you about people, aggravations so splinterlike you can’t quite explain why they bug you so much. She also understands that the best qualities of humans often dovetail with the very things that drive you crazy about them, even—or maybe especially—within a marriage. That idea is the foundation of Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings, which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, a movie about neurotic New Yorkers—is there any other kind?—just trying to get along with one another, even when they’re barely speaking to each other. It’s the sort of prickly, sweet-and-sour little comedy for and about adults that so few filmmakers make anymore.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Beth, a writer with a reasonably well-received memoir under her belt and a teaching gig at the New School. She has recently turned in another book, a novel this time, and she hasn’t heard back from her agent. Fretfully, she asks her psychiatrist husband Don (Tobias Menzies) if that means her agent doesn’t like the book. He reassures her that that couldn’t possibly be the case, and reaffirms how wonderful he thinks the book is—though later, she overhears a conversation in which he confides that he just doesn’t think it’s as good as her memoir. That this highly dramatic event—for Beth, at least—occurs near the sock wall at Paragon Sports is just one of those characteristically picaresque Holofcener touches.
Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), tries to calm her, assuring her that Don couldn’t possibly have meant what he said—or maybe he sort of did, but that’s not the end of the world either. Yet as Beth nurses her hurt feelings and muted anger, everyone around her vibrates with their own anxieties: Sarah, an interior decorator, is dealing with a persnickety client who wrinkles her nose at every single classy light fixture she hauls in. (At one point she growls, “I hate people. I don’t want to decorate their houses anymore.”) Sarah’s partner Mark (Arian Moayed)—the one to whom Don confessed his true feelings about his wife’s book—is a not particularly successful actor who’s just landed a part he’s not sure he can pull off. And Don is fumbling his practice: he mixes up one patient’s history with another; a married couple he’s been treating for years (played by David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) do nothing but fume at one another in his presence, until they join forces and turn against him.
Jeong Park/A24Tobias Menzies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in ‘You Hurt My Feelings’
I’ve always wondered if that sometimes happens to couples counselors; apparently, Holofcener has too. You Hurt My Feelings is a story about moderately happy people, pretty good at holding everything together, until they hit a speed bump, a crisis revolving around the risks of honesty. Early in the movie Beth and Don’s just-out-of-college son, Eliot (Owen Teague), an only child, watches as his parents split a salad during a park picnic. Do they share everything? he asks in exasperation, a question that’s a tell: this is one of those marriages so tight that the child feels like a third wheel.
That’s just one of the movie’s many lived-in details. It was also a stroke of genius to cast the enchantingly dry Jeannie Berlin as Sarah and Beth’s mother, the type of woman who donates a blouse to charity only to later try to get it back. And Beth and Don’s apartment, even though they’re clearly well-paid, well-educated professionals, is realistically New York-scaled—which is to say, it’s small. They have shelves full of books, and they’ve floated their small couch in front of them, something you almost never see in movies or even in design magazines—one of those little tricks of desperate ingenuity that help maximize limited space.
There’s also the way Beth professes delight as she opens an anniversary gift from Don that she clearly doesn’t like much, a pair of leaf-shaped earrings. “They’re leaves!” he announces brightly, outing himself as the kind of husband who has no idea what to buy his wife, no matter how close they are. She’s not so great at choosing for him, either. But in Holofcener’s world, even bad presents can ultimately bring people together. Looking back at You Hurt My Feelings, I marvel that there’s even enough there there to hold a whole movie together—the film is zephyrlike in its examination of sudden marital discord and overall annoyance with everybody on the planet. But somehow it works. As a story about how New Yorkers get by, making marriages and family relationships work in one of the toughest cities of the world, it’s both smart and entertaining. And if nothing else, the floating-couch trick comes free.