Review: You Hurt My Feelings
Lies of the little white variety are one of life's most useful social lubricants. Let's say your loved one asks you how they look, or how you like this gift they've brought, or this steaming slice of broccoli pie they just set before you. Are you really going to feel a need to muster honest answers to such questions? To volunteer that the loved one looks a little drawn, to be honest; that the unsolicited gift will immediately disappear into some seldom-visited drawer; that broccoli is the devil's vegetable? No, you're not going to say any of those things. You're going to lie.
Is there any good reason not to? That's the question writer-director Nicole Holofcener contemplates in her new movie, You Hurt My Feelings. It's a small question, and the picture is appropriately small-scale. But the issue it deals with is real, which is what keeps you tuned in to its modestly funny, low-key story.
It takes place in the Woody Allen world of prosperous Manhattan professionals, chief among them a writer named Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, also the star of Holofcener's 2013 film Enough Said). Beth has published one book—a memoir that was received fairly well some years back—and for the last two years she's been working on a novel, encouraged through periods of self-doubt by her loving husband Don (Tobias Menzies), who's a psychotherapist. Don has read every successive draft of Beth's new book and has always told her he loves them. Her support circle also includes her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins), who's an interior decorator, and Sarah's husband Mark (Arian Moayed), an actor. Beth herself always endeavors to provide encouragement for her son Eliot (Owen Teague), who's an aspiring playwright
In a clothes store one day, Beth comes upon Don and Mark standing in an aisle, engrossed in conversation. She stops nearby to listen and hears Don telling Mark about Beth's book—and how much he dislikes it. Beth is crushed, and at home Don is puzzled when she starts freezing him out.
As it happens, Don is having troubles of his own in his therapy practice. None of his patients seem to be making headway under his professional ministrations, and they barely disguise their resentment. ("God, he's an idiot," one man mutters on his way out of the office.) Then there's a couple (played by real-life spouses David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) who use their therapy sessions as an arena in which to continue the bitter squabbling that has drawn them to seek Don's help in the first place.
These two, we clearly see, could use an introductory course in little-white-lying. On the other hand, even the most well-intended fibs can misfire, too. Eliot recalls his mom encouraging him to pursue a childhood dream of becoming a competitive swimmer—a pursuit for which he had no gift. "She was just being supportive," Don tells his son. But Eliot isn't buying that. "You set me up to fail," he says, still hurt and angry.