Film

There’s nothing at stake in Nicole Holofcener’s middle-class satire You Hurt My Feelings, which undermines its stellar cast. By Christos Tsiolkas.

You Hurt My Feelings

A woman stands in a bathroom holding a man's face against her chest.
Tobias Menzies in You Hurt My Feelings.
Credit: Roadshow

I was excited to see Nicole Holofcener’s new film, You Hurt My Feelings. I think her work over the past 20 years or so has been some of the most literate, adult and engaging to come out of Hollywood. The first film of hers I saw was Friends with Money (2006), an incisive satire about one of the great taboos in American cinema, the conflict over money and status among the middle-class. I immediately hunted out 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, which was equally graceful and equally smart. In 2013 she made Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, which I think is one of the great modern rom-coms. It was suitably witty and sparkling, which is essential to the genre, but it also had a steely unsentimentality in the writing and performances that gave an authenticity to its study of two jaded people daring to find love in their middle age.

However, expectation is a risk when it comes to filmmakers you love. You tend to feel the disappointment more keenly if one of their films doesn’t quite work. From the opening scenes of You Hurt My Feelings, I realised I was going to be frustrated. It takes place in a gentrified New York and though the lighting is adequate, the cinematography – both exteriors and interiors – is prosaic, with no attempt to uncover beauty or the unexpected in the city or the locales. The jangling and repetitive score is breezily innocuous. It looks and sounds like a weaker episode of the television series And Just Like That…

There’s blandness in the writing as well, in the superficial expository dialogue that introduces us to the main characters. Louis-Dreyfus is again the lead, playing Beth, a fiction writer whose last book, a memoir, didn’t achieve the success she’d hoped for. Her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), is a therapist who is beginning to doubt his vocation. Their dual middle-aged crises are mirrored in the marriage between Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), an interior designer, and her husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), a struggling actor whose last significant role was playing second fiddle to an animated pumpkin.

There are rich pickings for satire in poking fun at the foibles and narcissism of pampered, white New Yorkers. Holofcener’s stepfather, Charles H. Joffe, was a producer of Woody Allen’s magical run of films from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, and she began her film career working on that director’s films, including being an apprentice editor on the sublime Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Allen’s influence is obvious in how most of Holofcener’s films are peopled by highly erudite urban professionals whose self-regard battles with neurosis and anxiety. As with Allen, Holofcener shoots in an intimately realist style, preferencing close-ups so that the dialogue and the performances are to the fore.

However, Holofcener isn’t as misanthropic as Allen. This wasn’t a problem in her previous films, where her guiding sympathy for her characters was tempered by a rigorous scrupulousness towards their more ridiculous or selfish behaviour. That clarity is lacking in You Hurt My Feelings. The main conflict in the film occurs when Beth and Sarah overhear Don confessing to his brother-in-law that he doesn’t like the novel Beth is currently writing. Earlier we’ve seen Don be encouraging, and Beth experiences his lying as a betrayal. For her fury to really land – for us to experience the shock of it – we need to believe her confidence as a writer has been extinguished, that self-doubt is destroying her ability to do her work.

The script is peppered with tame jibes at the contemporary publishing industry, at the dominance of misery porn, for example. Beth tutors a creative writing class where the preoccupations of the students are suffocatingly self-obsessed. Yet we never see or hear Beth and Don arguing about books, politics or art. We never feel her joy or her obsession with writing. And Holofcener’s script refuses to explore the full extent of the resentments that Beth must be feeling as an ageing writer in a cultural landscape where her privilege marks her out as a has-been. It also holds back from exploring the equal frustration that Don might be experiencing in constantly propping up her fragile ego.

This film feels very much as if it is a first draft. The arguments between Beth and Don are forced and improbable, and although Louis-Dreyfus and Menzies are exceptionally fine comic actors, you can see them struggling against the limitations of the script. One of the great joys of Enough Said was seeing Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini shake off the personas they had established as characters in two of the most successful television shows ever. The writing in that script was constantly surprising and within a few scenes I had forgotten I was watching Elaine from Seinfeld or Tony Soprano. This doesn’t happen once in You Hurt My Feelings: the cast never disappear into their roles.

The shoddiness that marks the script is also evident in the filmmaking. The scene where Beth overhears Don confess his dislike of her new book is terrible, the blocking preposterous and unrealistic. It is the moment where we need to feel Beth’s shame and hurt, but we can only wonder at the ineptness of the framing and editing. By this stage, my disappointment with the film was shifting to derision. In an earlier scene where Beth and Sarah are volunteering at a homeless shelter, I was appalled by the filmmakers’ ersatz choices. The extras seemed to be mindlessly walking around in hobo drag. It is not only the director who is at fault here. From the art direction, to the editing, to the cinematography and the tiresome music scoring, no one involved in the film seemed to care about the work they were doing.

There are small pleasures. Watkins is genuinely acerbic as Sarah and I was grateful for every scene she was in. Jeannie Berlin plays the sisters’ mother, Georgia, and her comic timing is exquisite. The relationship Beth has with her mother is the most complex, and therefore the most satisfying, in the film. There is real friction there, the sense of unspoken past antagonisms combating with genuine love. Georgia’s thinly disguised reservations about her daughter’s abilities seem a more fruitful incitement for Beth’s anger and doubt. It certainly is a stronger motivation than the tension between her and Don, or between Beth and her son, Eliot, who is played with a too-dogged adolescent whininess by Owen Teague.

The shallow conception and writing are laid bare in the wretched closing scenes. The questions of professional failure and insecurity that have bedevilled not only Beth, but all the characters in the film, are neatly resolved for the sake of a happy ending. It feels shockingly cynical.

When Beth overhears her husband criticising her book, she walks out into the New York streets and wants to vomit. The scene deliberately recalls Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978). Holofcener is clearly influenced by Mazursky’s work, particularly his effervescent Blume in Love (1973). In An Unmarried Woman, Mazursky was unflinching in acknowledging the privilege of his upper-class main character, Erica. Nevertheless, he also took her pain – and the galvanising influence of her feminist awakening – seriously. Like Holofcener at her best, his sympathy is never compromised by his curiosity. There is a bagginess to that film, a sometimes-meandering middle section where Jill Clayburgh is given the freedom to explore doubt, to take the tentative first steps to reimagining and remaking her life. There’s nothing neat about An Unmarried Woman – and that’s why I love it still.

It’s a huge mistake for Holofcener to refer to Mazursky’s movie: it puts the weaknesses of You Hurt My Feelings into sharp relief. There’s nothing at stake in this film. I wish that You Hurt My Feelings was a failure rather than a huge disappointment. I prefer a filmmaker I admire to take risks, to deal with the shifting sands of contemporary culture in ways that are tentative and exploratory. Throughout this film, Holofcener is playing it safe.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Playing it safe".

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