The mere presence of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a Manhattan movie creates expectations even though we’re decades-removed from her “Seinfeld” stardom.
But this time she’s working for that indie icon Nicole Holofcener, a writer and director known for intimate and sometimes lighthearted portraits of characters in a particular world and a distinct, instantly-recognizable stage and status in life.
Remember those poor souls coping with “Friends with Money,” featuring “Friend” Jennifer Aniston, or the New Yorkers wrestling with neighbors and living space and the appearance of charity in “Please Give,” or the odd couple at an odd time to be dating again (Louis-Dreyfus paired with James Gandolfini) of “Enough Said?”
This time Louis-Dreyfus is playing someone much older and no wiser, still craving status, still insecure enough to let a little white lie, tactlessly revealed, move her to admit “You Hurt My Feelings.”
Beth teaches fiction writing for one of the colleges in town, an intimate workshop of five slightly off-center “over-sharers.” She’s published a well-received memoir that reached a tiny audience, an audience she is deflated to learn doesn’t include her students. Maybe if the fatherly “abuse wasn’t just verbal” it’d have sold better, she tells herself, her agent, her mother (Jeannie Berlin) and others. And she has been wrestling with draft after draft of her first novel.
Her agent is cool on it. Her adoring husband of several decades, Don (Tobias Menzies, Prince Philip in “The Crowne”) gushes with encouragement. But she might want to consider what Don does for a living — he’s a psychotherapist — when she hears that from him. Because when she overhears Don candidly complaining that he doesn’t “like” the book, or being subjected to reading draft after draft of it, Beth is shattered.
In an instant, she tells her sister (Michaela Watkins, terrific), she goes from affection and a tendency to share food and ice cream cones with her soul mate to “I am NOT going to be able to look him in the face again!”
Even among the fragile family circle/bubble Beth has ensconced herself in, that seems extreme.
But consider her sister, an interior decorator who has to keep a smile on her face as she shows one wall-mounted light fixture after another to a shallow, demanding client and hold her tongue when her semi-successful husband (Arian Moayed) struggles to get acting roles and not lose them because he’s not very interesting in the spotlight.
Consider Don’s practice. If Beth could spy on him with patients, she’d hear the inane, ineffectual advice he passes on, see how forgetful he’s getting with age and hear clients muttering “Idiot” when they leave or sign off a Zoom session.
One feuding couple (Amber Tamblyn and David Cross, hilarious) set aside a little time from tearing into each other in every session to chew on Don’s competence or seeming unwillingness to help.
And then there’s Beth and Don’s pot-store manager son (Owen Teague), a 23 year-old playwright wannabe who lashes out at his privileged, only child upbringing and those who supervised it and their little white lies of encouragement.
“You always expect the BEST from me!”
What can a mother say to that but “You’re WELCOME!”
“You Hurt My Feelings” and its characters are caught up in a low stakes game built on petty complaints, and that impacts our appreciation of it. It’s lightly funny, but only occasionally. It’s sharply-observed, but like “Seinfeld,” its populace is caught up in New York minutia.
The broad nature of sitcom structure and laughs allowed that earlier TV show to explain Manhattanites (with a dose of Queens) to America, and mock them to great success. Holofcener is shooting fish in a much smaller barrel here.
“You’re Hurting My Feelings” feels confined by geography, claustrophobic in its concentration on a few city blocks and a tiny number of annoying people within them. It’s a twee comedy, well-played and mostly close-to-the-vest, but lacking much in the way of novelty and the sharper observations Holofcener is famous for.
Her surehandedness with comedy — it’s not wholly her thing — can also be questioned in the tightassed academia farce “Lucky Hank,” which she directed and which never quite delivers in a way you’d hope.
But Louis-Dreyfus is an always-engaging screen presence, most entertaining when she’s most exasperated. And Holofcener has parked her in a cute if slight sociological study that takes navel-gazing New Yorkers into their AARP years, still comfortably discomfitted by the littlest things, still making mountains out of lives littered with molehills.
Rating: R, (profanity)
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague, Amber Tamblyn, Jeannie Berlin and David Cross
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nicole Holofcener. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:33