Don’t feel bad for writer-director Nicole Holofcener, though she has labored in the film and television industry for almost 30 years, much of it in relative obscurity. Don’t feel bad for her, because she’s a nepo baby who apprenticed under Woody Allen in her youth. Don’t feel bad for her, because she chooses to tell stories of wealthy white coastal elites rather than hustle for an assignment from Marvel. After all, with the just-opened You Hurt My Feelings, Holofcener is receiving some of the best reviews of her career.
It’s not as though she’s ever been — or played — the victim. Stepdaughter to Charles Joffe, who produced many of Allen’s greatest films, including Annie Hall, Holofcener went on to become a poster child for the industry workhorse. She has written and directed seven features, including Lovely & Amazing (2001), Friends With Money (2006), and Enough Said (2013). Credited as a screenwriter on Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) and The Last Duel (2021), she has also directed television — a lot of television — from sitcoms like Sex and the City and Parks and Recreation to dramedies and prestige comedies such as One Mississippi and Lucky Hank to the highly meme-able “Last Fuckable Day” sketch from the third season of Inside Amy Schumer.
Her films are ostensibly slight, running around 90 minutes a pop and centered on privileged people who worry that their emotional scars are cosmically unimportant. Within our current cycle of “eat the rich” satires (Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, The White Lotus) and brash reality shows that double as ads for predatory capitalism, Holofcener offers a vital counterpoint. She fixes her uniquely compassionate camera on bored suburbanites, sheepish trust fund babies, and upwardly mobile creative types, judgmental but insecure people paralyzed by their own relentless inner critics.
To that end: You Hurt My Feelings is a film about Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a Manhattan writer who discovers that her therapist husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), hates her latest manuscript. He has lied to her for two years, telling her to keep at a novel he doesn’t believe in. Put another way, a beleaguered man encourages his fragile wife to persevere, and her inability to withstand a whisper of criticism brings her to the brink. Put yet another way, a miserable, affluent couple struggles through their cashmere sweater problems (middle-aged champagne problems), and it’s funny, and it’s true, and, as with so many Holofcener films, the question remains: If it isn’t a big deal, then why is it so damn hard to fix?
This sort of dilemma is not relatable to everyone, but it has proven to be so for the people who watch — and review — her movies. “Delicate, loose-limbed and tremendously alive,” Stephanie Zacharek raved of Lovely & Amazing; Andrew O’Hehir described Friends With Money as “dense and sophisticated”; and the late, great Roger Ebert called Please Give “revolutionary.” To know Nicole Holofcener is to love her, but that might just be because only her champions remember that she exists.
And to love Holofcener’s work is to harbor a certain strain of taste — for quiet, actorly showcases; for sly, talky comedies; for independent films that, by and large, operate on actual independent film budgets and timelines. But her films also exhibit a fair amount of ambivalence around the idea of good taste and how disconnected that is from being a good person.
What’s so bad about knowing what’s good? It’s not just a matter of money — though it is that, obviously. It’s also about the cultural capital oozing out of these characters’ carefully maintained pores. By filling their brains with tasteful gold earrings and striking mid-century tapestries, her characters can’t unknow what’s good. Their impulse to appraise the people around them is both inexcusable and inevitable, more dangerous and close to home than the goofy game Alvy and Annie play, coolly scripting the lives of strangers in Annie Hall. Those characters blessed (or cursed) with extra self-awareness turn the gun on themselves, finding their own good taste frankly distasteful.
In Walking and Talking, Holofcener’s debut feature, she traces how a group of young New Yorkers mark the contours of their lives with their aesthetic judgments. Frank (Todd Field) is a jewelry designer whose job it is to design kitschy, ugly brooches and engagement rings. His fiancee, Laura (Anne Heche), visits Kleinfeld Bridal Salon and immediately tries on the ugliest, tackiest gown she can find, as a goof. Her best friend, Amelia (Catherine Keener), begrudgingly starts to date a video store employee (Kevin Corrigan), who says of exploitation films, “I love them when they’re well done.” Uncertain of their futures, Amelia, Laura, and Frank figure out who they are by mocking that which they are not. At times, it makes them mean.
In Please Give, a dealer (Catherine Keener) buys furniture from the family of the deceased and struggles with the attendant guilt of knowing what everything is worth. Her livelihood relies on her ability to buy low and sell high, leveraging her expertise and taste against mourners’ ignorance. When she visits the store of an even more ruthless rival, she asks a designer what that dealer is like. “Good taste,” the woman cracks. “Still a prick.”
And in Enough Said, perhaps the most direct companion to You Hurt My Feelings, a masseuse named Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) starts dating Albert (James Gandolfini), the ex-husband of her most elegant, aspirational client, Marianne (Keener, yes again). Marianne is a poet with a perfectly curated home. “Everything is so pretty,” Eva notes, gazing around at the patchwork colors and the natural light. “Can I live here? That tea is kind of fabulous too.” When Marianne confides in Eva about her ex-husband’s many failings — his slobbishness, his laziness, his lack of self-discipline — it taints Eva’s feelings toward Albert. “I thought you liked me,” Albert says, after an unpleasant dinner party with Eva’s friends. “Why do I feel like I just spent the evening with my ex-wife?”
Focused on big feelings and small grievances, Holofcener’s work maps all too neatly onto questions of literary criticism today. Enough Said explores the irresistible urge to judge the people around you, to weaponize borrowed critiques and turns-of-phrase against those you love. Albert is a lover of culture, a professional fanboy — he works as the curator of a television museum — but Eva is a critic, helplessly authoring a hit piece on her own romantic life. By harping on his nutritional illiteracy and his inability to whisper in a movie theater, Eva tells Albert, in not so many words, that he is a dud. This is just how Richard Joseph, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, articulates the shape of the literary hatchet job, writing that “threaded strategically throughout is the suggestion that this bad writing is merely a symptom of a larger failure, a failure of personality and intellect.” This combative stance has become, in Joseph’s words, “the dominant mode of literary criticism for the internet era” and has given birth to a “literature of painful self-awareness.”
Enter You Hurt My Feelings, a film about defensive artists and even more defensive critics. The movie offers an opposing discourse, namely that critics have gotten too friendly, too nice. Somehow, this is also Twitter’s fault, what Slate’s Jacob Silverman calls criticism’s transformation into a “mutual appreciation society.” “We are paid to be skeptical,” Silverman insists, “even pugilistic, so that our enthusiasms count for more when they’re well earned,”
Roxane Gay, in her acerbic reply to Silverman in Salon, rejects his terms, insisting, among other points: “We are all adults here.” And regarding Silverman’s article’s title, “Against Enthusiasm,” Gay responds, “intellect and emotion are not discrete tools, not for me.” What Gay understands, and Holofcener dramatizes, is the fundamental intimacy sparked between writer and critic, husband and wife, mother and son, when feedback enters the picture. Just as books are meant to be read, feelings are built to be hurt. It’s almost not worth discussing, which of course means Holofcener’s talky characters are duty-bound to discuss it into the ground.
If any moment in You Hurt My Feelings clinches its status as a referendum on the state of criticism, it is the running gag of the Bookpage cover blurb. Louis-Dreyfus’s Beth, a memoirist and writing professor struggling with her first novel, engages in the masochistic practice of comparing the ecstatic blurbs on her books with those on others’ works. Is a descriptor like “Moving!” or “Triumphant!” weaker or equivalent to “A revelation!”? She runs the calculations in her head, her eyes and mouth twitching with insecurity.
It is too easy to imagine Holofcener doing this. As she told Filmmaker magazine, “I read reviews. I think that I’ve never made, knock on wood, a movie that got terrible reviews. And I think that if the majority of the reviews were terrible, I would stop at some point to save myself.” But what does a pathologically insecure artist do when bad reviews are more a matter of damning with faint praise than out-and-out panning? To start, she parses the bookstore display.
Though Keener has long been Holofcener’s go-to lead, You Hurt My Feelings is a vehicle perfectly attuned to Louis-Dreyfus’s persona. It comes down to pet vibes. Keener is all cat energy. Loving, seductive, and prickly, she is skittish, suspicious of care, even as she is drawn to warmth and comfort. Louis-Dreyfus, by contrast, is funny, bouncy, and open-hearted. She wants to cuddle up and share her toys, but she is also a bit on edge, easily crushed. With her glossy brown hair and soulful eyes, Louis-Dreyfus’s Beth is a rescue cocker spaniel. This film needed dog energy in the lead role, if for no other reason than that it is about a creature who falls apart without perpetual validation.
The film offers a vital twist on the debate around “separating the art from the artist.” Usually, we ask, Can you love the art and hate the artist? Here, it’s the flip conundrum, with the wife wailing, “I just need his approval, of all people,” and the husband insisting that he doesn’t love her for her writing. This is something she needs to know, but may never be ready to hear.
You Hurt My Feelings feels like a continuation of Holofcener’s filmography, and even her television work, with Louis-Dreyfus and Michaela Watkins gamely bantering as they traverse a city crosswalk; it is as though they’ve been ripped from an HBO seriocomedy (Divorced, Enlightened, take your pick). Watkins plays Sarah, Beth’s sister, an unfulfilled interior designer who spends her days picking light fixtures for the vapid rich, and her nights reassuring her needy actor husband (Arian Moayed).
Louis-Dreyfus and Watkins’s rapport is, perhaps, less surprising than Louis-Dreyfus’s chemistry with Tobias Menzies. As Don, Menzies, who is best known for his dramatic roles in Outlander and The Crown, absorbs Beth’s nervous energy and returns it with the slow, tired sadness of a therapist whose clients pity and disdain him. They have more in common than they even know: Both go to work (as a professor, as a psychologist) poised to assess others — to diagnose their creative and personal needs — only to get their own feelings brutally bruised. Their complementary vibes, their easy passing of an ice cream cone or chuckling over a half-funny inside joke, illustrate how they’ve stayed married so long, and why this particular hurt might throw their relationship into crisis.
Sitcom-y at points, the film feels especially edited around the laugh lines and reaction shots, as when Beth and Sarah visit their impossible, mildly senile mother (Jeannie Berlin). But it’s not as slapstick or satiric as the marketing might suggest. Beth’s memories of her father’s verbal abuse remain raw decades later, the camera closing in on her stressed expression as a dude-bro literary agent cites the most vicious insults from her memoir. She has overcorrected, arguably, with her son, who is writing a play he won’t let her read. “You’re always expecting the best of me,” he tells his mother, accusingly.
What’s the answer, then? As writers, as critics, as parents and children, we will continue to crumble at the prospect of censure, weed the insults out from a garden of praise, and rebrand white lies as “encouragement.” Roxane Gay might be wrong; we might not all be adults here. But beneath You Hurt My Feelings’ comic premise, under its haggard visages and deep wells of pain, the film remains, at heart, a comedy about hating your lovers, loving your haters, and recognizing that that twin burdens of good taste and bad feeling can be lightened with a little humor.
Most commonly compared to Woody Allen for obvious reasons, Holofcener has here conceived of a film that sits more comfortably beside Neil Simon’s love letter to New York, The Goodbye Girl. In it, an actor (in the film, Richard Dreyfus) is cast in an ill-conceived production of Richard III. The notices are awful, but the director is thrilled: “Everybody, she loved it!” he proclaims. “My mother! She loved it!”
Sometimes, you have to laugh. ❖
Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, 2022).