“You Hurt My Feelings” reunites Julia Louis-Dreyfus with Nicole Holofcener, the writer-director of her 2013 film “Enough Said.” After co-writing “The Last Duel” (2021) with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Holofcener returns to the sweet but occasionally biting comedies that are her trademark.
Her latest is the gentlest of cringe comedies, a cautionary tale about the little white lies we tell our loved ones — and ourselves. Along the way, Holofcener pokes fun at the neuroses of her characters. Her cast is game for any uncomfortable situation the screenplay tosses at them. The result is often laugh-out-loud funny. You’ll laugh even harder if you recognize or identify with the scenario.
Watching this film, I was reminded of Catherine Deneuve’s line in 2020′s “The Truth.” Deneuve plays a writer whose memoir is far from accurate. When confronted by her daughter played by Juliette Binoche, she says, “I never tell the naked truth; it’s not interesting.” It may not be interesting, but as we discover in this film, it’s probably safer.
Beth (Louis-Dreyfus) is a college professor who teaches a writing class. Her last book, a memoir entitled “I Had to Tell It,” didn’t sell as many copies as she’d hoped. Her mother, Georgia (Jeannie Berlin), blames Beth’s PR person. Beth blames the fact that her childhood wasn’t as brutal as some of the authors who wrote more successful tell-alls. “Maybe if Dad hadn’t just been verbally abusive, it would have been a bestseller,” Beth complains to her mother.
Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), is an interior decorator who can’t seem to satisfy her latest client’s light-fixture demands. She and Beth volunteer at a charitable function that distributes donated clothing. As they work, the sisters trade the latest gossip and also commiserate over their mother’s prickly demeanor. They also discuss the latest mishaps of Sarah’s actor-husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), who apparently is not very good.
Don (Tobias Menzies), Beth’s husband, is perhaps the worst shrink money can buy. His patients make passive-aggressive comments about him under their breath as they leave his office. A bickering married couple, hilariously played by Amber Tamblyn and David Cross, trade venomous barbs while Don looks preoccupied. When he finally lays the truth on these two — that they should divorce because they obviously hate each other — they refuse to accept it.
The truth does a lot more damage when Don wields it regarding his wife, though she wasn’t supposed to hear it. She and Michaela decide to sneak up on their husbands in the sock department of a men’s store (Mark has some kind of sock fetish). As they approach, Beth overhears Don whispering that her newest manuscript is a chore to read. This admission is in direct opposition to what Don’s been telling her. He’s been telling her it’s her best book yet.
Considering that Don’s been her biggest cheerleader since they got together, Beth assumes everything he’s been telling her about her work is a lie. She starts to spiral about what other possible untruths he’s been telling her. Adding to her worries, their son, Eliot (Owen Teague), chews her out for lying to him back in high school about how how he was such a great athlete. He believes it colored his own feelings of self-worth, especially after his girlfriend dumps him because he’s not good enough for her.
Holofcener makes credible, funny arguments about hard, cold truths versus the lies we tell to spare someone’s feelings. The movie asks: Which course of action is worse? Before the end credits roll, we’ll learn that everybody’s been untruthful about something. The film’s best scene has Don and Beth verbally running a gauntlet of fibs they’ve told to keep the peace.
When it comes to playing characters drowning in their own neuroses, there’s nobody better than Louis-Dreyfus. Her comic timing is aces, and she has the uncanny ability to wring both humor and pathos from a line. She’s surrounded by a supporting cast that matches her beat for beat. Menzies is as open about his insecurities around aging, and in some scenes, Watkins is even better with a line or putdown than Louis-Dreyfus.
The screenplay is wise enough to keep the stakes low; there’s no lie being told that’s directly harmful or would result in divorce. In this way, Holofcener is able to go to comic extremes by blowing everything out of proportion. At the same time, she is not cruel to her characters. Their hurt is understandable, even when it appears to be an overreaction.
The summer season rarely has room for a nice, adult comedy like “You Hurt My Feelings.” It is counter-programming of the finest order and one of the year’s best films. After you see it, you may be more inclined to stick to the awful truth when your better half asks you a loaded question.
YOU HURT MY FEELINGS
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Jeannie Berlin, David Cross, Amber Tamblyn, Owen Teague, Arian Moayed. 93 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. R (the language is more “Veep” than “Seinfeld”)
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this review misstated the last name of an actor in the film. The actor’s name is Amber Tamblyn. The Globe regrets the error.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.