Early on in “You Hurt My Feelings,” a therapist named Don (Tobias Menzies) is wrapping up a Zoom session with a client. After noting that they’re making real progress, Don starts to log off, before hearing his patient mutter, “God, what an idiot.”
It’s a laugh line, but also a moment of genius on the part of writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose favorite place to be is the funny, sad, mortifying and soaring in-between moments of being human. In “You Hurt My Feelings,” the cardinal emotion is self-deception, particularly the lengths we go to protect the most cherished self-mythologies of the people we love.
Since making her stunning debut in 1996 with “Walking and Talking,” Holofcener has been one of American cinema’s inexplicably best-kept secrets. Her name deserves to be as instantly recognizable as Woody Allen or Judd Apatow. “You Hurt My Feelings” finds Holofcener at the top of her already formidable game, limning the nuances of intimacy, ambivalence, failure and indefatigable hope with tartly observant humor and boundless – but not overly saccharine – generosity.
“You Hurt My Feelings” opens with one of Don’s sessions, involving a constantly bickering couple played with amusing acid by David Cross and Amber Tamblyn, then cuts to his wife, Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), an author and creative writing instructor. Beth published a moderately successful memoir centered on the verbal abuse she suffered as a child, and has been working on a novel, about which she has nagging doubts: Her agent has been avoiding her, and when she goes to a neighborhood book store, she sees a blurb for another memoir – “Perilously close to perfect!” – and immediately covers it with a copy of her own.
If Beth is a bundle of insecurities, at least Don is unconditionally on her side: He has read each of several drafts of her new book with unfailing enthusiasm. But when she overhears him admitting that he actually doesn’t like it, her world spirals into chaos. The lie Don has been telling to support his wife, through another lens, is nothing short of a betrayal. Even more existentially threatening is the question of how he can love Beth if he doesn’t love her work.
These problems might sound like a hill of beans typical of the prosperous, occasionally shallow Manhattanites who populate “You Hurt My Feelings.” But Holofcener never trivializes their pain, even if she examines it with a playfully jaundiced eye. The film’s themes are echoed in a number of subplots involving Don’s clients and Beth’s family. The couple’s son, Elliot (Owen Teague) is working through his own issues, wondering if Beth’s overpraise has set him up to fail. Her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) is married to Mark (“Succession’s” Arian Moayed), a struggling actor coping with auditions, rejections and his chronic need for validation. Meanwhile, Beth’s insistence on perfect honesty is challenged by her mother Georgia (Jeannie Berlin), who is nothing if not critical every time they get together.
As with all of Holofcener’s movies, there are some hilarious lines in “You Hurt My Feelings,” which Louis-Dreyfus delivers with characteristic subtlety, as when she barely stifles a “surprisingly” when complimenting a student’s short story. (Since starring in the wry 2013 romantic comedy “Enough Said,” Louis-Dreyfus has become as reliable a Holofcener avatar as Catherine Keener, who has appeared in most of the filmmaker’s movies.)
Consistent with Holofcener’s oeuvre, the comedy of “You Hurt My Feelings” isn’t composed of setups and zingers as much as fleeting, indelible moments, in this case laced together with superb pacing and delicacy by editor Alisa Lepselter. (The film was handsomely shot by Jeffrey Waldron and the warmly lilting score is by Michael Andrews.) Every parent will recognize an argument between mother and young-adult son that seethes with unspoken hostility and frustration, until he asks, “Wait, mom, do we have bagels?” In another scene, the movie “An Unmarried Woman” becomes an equally on-point punchline.
The most obvious pleasures of “You Hurt My Feelings” lie in these laugh-out-loud sequences, but the movie gains steady velocity and unexpected depth in the way Holofcener gently guides her characters through choppy emotional waters, allowing them to get rocked around a little, but never to capsize completely. As a chronicle of the pains we all take just to get through the day, “You Hurt My Feelings” rings uncannily true. As a slice of life spiked with mordant, uncynical humor, it’s deliciously entertaining. In other words, it’s another Holofcener movie, which means it’s perilously close to perfect.