You Hurt My Feelings
FilmNation Entertainment, 2023
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Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
Whether comedies choose to be dark, light-hearted or somewhere in between, they often still have a menacing antagonist that the main character has to overcome. It may be the principal who heavily values perfect attendance (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) or the new camp counselor enforcing strict rules and fitness (Heavyweights). Nevertheless, penning a slice-of-life comedy allows the opportunity for more of a disembodied villain. This sort of bad guy can simply be a character trait, like the negative self-talk that many of us consistently experience, echoed in the comments of someone we hold dear. Such is the case in the 2023 comedy You Hurt My Feelings.
Julia-Louis Dreyfuss (Seinfeld, Veep) stars as Beth, a writer and teacher who leans on her husband Don (Tobias Menzies, Casino Royale) and sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins, Paint) for emotional support. Similar to many creatives, Beth suffers from insecurities about the quality of her work, in large part due to how long she has been in the business. One day, she overhears Don talking to Sarah’s husband Mark (Arian Moayed, Succession), admitting what he would never say to her directly: that despite reading many drafts, he dislikes her most recent novel. This admission devastates Beth, shaking her confidence not only in her work but in the strength of their relationship. She is left to figure out how, if at all, to confront Don about the issue. Before doing so, Beth must mull over whether she is angry about his dishonesty or the criticism itself.
As a slice-of-life comedy, You Hurt My Feelings addresses a constant dilemma of relationships, romantic or otherwise, which is how to tactfully critique your loved ones. Having unconditional love for someone does not necessarily equate to having unconditional love for everything they do. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener hits on this theme effectively through her characterization of Don. He is not a cold-hearted, abusive spouse in the mold of a Tyler Perry antagonist. In fact, he is not an antagonist at all. He adores Beth and is unrelenting in his support of her, so much so that she would have been none the wiser had she not eavesdropped on his conversation.
The reason Don’s criticism stings Beth as much as it does is because her profession already requires so much vulnerability. Working in a creative field exposes you to effusive scorn from complete strangers who do not care about your feelings at all and even measured criticism from those attempting to market you. Many professionals take solace in the approval of their loved ones as the only constant that they have. With this context, it is easy to see how Beth’s feelings can be so hurt but also why Don would hesitate to be truthful.
Though Don’s confession is the inciting incident for the movie, the theme of how to critique those close to you resurfaces among several characters throughout the film. Don and Beth have a son Elliott in his early 20’s, who works in a marijuana dispensary and lives with his girlfriend. As the story progresses, Elliott questions whether or not he was raised with an appropriate level of self-awareness or coddled into thinking too highly of himself. Similarly, Don’s work as a therapist comes under the microscope. With markers of progress being so undefined in his field, it is tough at times to figure out whether or not he is really helping his patients get better and if they have any faith in his abilities. Sarah is a high-end interior decorator who questions her own life’s work several times, as she struggles to please a difficult client. These portrayals all feel very relatable, causing the audience to assess every situation and question how they would handle it.
Jonathan (David Cross, Arrested Development) and Carolyn (Amber Tamblyn, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), a married couple who are two of Don’s clients, serve as the control group in this story of rocky relationships. They bicker constantly in their sessions with Don and lack any intimacy or even basic respect for one another. In a strange way, it stands out as the most candid relationship of the film, even if completely unhealthy. Jonathan and Carolyn’s fights and teeth-gritting insults at one another give credence to Don’s decision to swallow his tongue about Beth’s work. Seeing a brutally honest married couple argue and hurt each other week-after-week could make anyone second-guess the value of being completely forthcoming about a loved one’s flaws.
While far less dramatic, You Hurt My Feelings bears some resemblance to the late 90s rom-com The Story of Us. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a couple who are on the verge of divorce and fight constantly. Despite couples therapy and having two children, they struggle to settle their differences or move on from past betrayals. Don and Beth never have such high stakes for their quandary, but the core issue of their marriage, how to be tactfully critical, translates to any and every relationship.