You Hurt My Feelings Julia Louis-Dreyfus

You Hurt My Feelings is a delightfully modern comedy of remarriage

4 out of 5 stars

Are we what we do? In Nicole Holofcener’s latest comedy, You Hurt My Feelings, writer Beth’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) perfect marriage to Don (Tobias Menzies) nearly falls apart after she overhears him saying he doesn’t like her latest, yet-to-be-published novel. More than just Beth’s story, though, we see three other career narrative threads as the closest people in Beth’s life deal with similar insecurity with their work, which most of us would call vocational; acting, psychiatry and interior design. 

Anchored in the themes of the Comedy of Remarriage, one of the classic genres of American cinema, You Hurt My Feelings tackles the dual realm of the domestic and public sphere. Beth and Don are comically co-dependent in public, sharing salads and ice cream in front of their son (who later accuses them of liking each other more than him). At home, they are intimate and quick-witted. They share a happy routine and support each other in their grievances. Their marriage, by all accounts, is happy — until it’s not. 

Philosopher Stanley Cavell’s book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage explored the philosophy of modern love in films like It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story and The Awful Truth. In a contemporary context where marriage is no longer predicated on economics or religion, the foundations of a healthy relationship must be predicated on mutual respect. 

For Beth, that mutual respect is predicated on Don thinking she’s a great writer. Her memoir about her father’s verbal abuse was a minor success. She’s a writing teacher at a prestigious New York Writing Program, guiding a new generation of writers to find their bliss. In her day-to-day life, she seems squirrely and neurotic, uncertain how to navigate criticism or to reel back her anxiety. Perhaps rooted in her father’s berating of her intelligence, she overcompensates with those around her, offering the praise she wishes she had as a child.

As the action progress, Beth’s adoring, unquestioning support of those around her (particularly her husband and adult son) begin to crack. Like Beth, Don is going through the motions in his work as a therapist. He’s checked out and cannot offer meaningful help to his clients. Beth’s son, who works at a dispensary, aspires to be a playwright but has never finished a play. The enormous pressure to be great, piled on by his mother, only makes the task more impossible for the aimless youth. 

Tobias Menzies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelings

The film posits that unearned respect is effectively meaningless. Beth’s cheerleader attitude about the work of those around her, with no context or even proof, becomes an enormous burden. Blinded by her need for validation, she cannot see that her praise-dumping can be construed as an untruth or a lie, at least by the standard she holds her husband to. Beth must learn that the people around her respect and love her for reasons other than her work. Mutual respect predicated solely on work and labour isn’t mutual respect at all, it seems. 

Holofcener’s script subverts expectations about genius and even competency. Her characters are successful even if they could be better at what they do. What does it mean to be a great writer? The measure of her success is weighed against the perception of others; whether or not her book is prominently displayed in a bookstore, vapid commercial praise and the respect of her husband. As the script withholds plot details about Beth’s new novel, we have no deep sense that the work is meaningful, only what it elicits. The sensitivity of the writing, though, allows us to laugh at Beth while also sympathizing with her. Particularly in an era of constant online performance, are we not vying in some way for the approval of others above our own satisfaction?

Though not overtly about the rat race of capitalism, the movie has a spiritual heart, yearning for a sense of peace and stability rooted in something separate from labour. At its core, the film dares to ask if we’ve allowed work to take an outsized presence in our lives and sense of self. What have we compromised in tying our sense of worth to do what we do? What does it mean to live a good life? Where do we find meaning? Though ridiculous and fun, the experience of You Hurt My Feelings lingers primarily due to the engagement with these questions. 

Often laugh-out-loud funny and brimming with playful but rooted performances, You Hurt My Feelings is a refreshingly astute and charming comedy about love and labour. By harkening back to the screwball era with a contemporary twist, the movie captures the unique pressures of modern life without losing touch with universally resonating themes. ■

You Hurt My Feelings (director Nicole Holofcener)

You Hurt My Feelings opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, May 26.

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