By Alex McPherson

Breezy, funny, and insubstantial, director Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings” provides its ensemble ample room to flex their comedic chops, but remains emotionally limited by a low-stakes narrative aiming for profundity and arriving at something less than revelatory. 

Set within our dying planet in the bustling metropolis hellscape of New York City, “You Hurt My Feelings” revolves around Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged author and teacher at The New School, who, all things considered, lives a pretty-damn-privileged existence. She has a new novel coming out — two years in the making — that she’s having trouble getting off the ground due to an unenthusiastic agent. It’s the follow-up to her moderately successful memoir that spotlighted her father’s verbal abuse, which instilled a huge layer of insecurity. 

She’s sarcastic and judgy, but enjoys a happy marriage with her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), a somewhat burnt-out therapist whose clients — played by real-life spouses Amber Tamblyn and David Cross, plus Zach Cherry in peak straight-faced hilarity — are becoming increasingly fed up with his lack of engagement and “results.”

Their 20-something son Eliot (Owen Teague) is an aspiring playwright working at a weed dispensary, frequently annoyed that he feels like a third wheel around his parents. Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), is a jaded interior designer with a sardonic wit. Her brother-in-law, Mark (Arian Moayed), is an actor with dreams of fame and fortune struggling to secure roles beyond a small part in a “pumpkin movie.”

Arian Moayed and Michaela Watkins

Suffice to say, everyone in this little circle is self-doubting, seeking validation and reassurance from those close to them. Our heroine, Beth, is particularly vulnerable. When she and Sarah overhear Don disclosing to Mark that he doesn’t like her newest novel and can’t stand reading draft after draft of it, Beth spirals — putting her marriage at risk as she grapples with this bombshell revelation.

Over the course of a 93-minute runtime, Beth gains greater understanding of how the “little white lies” we tell each other aren’t always that bad, along with how (shocker) we shouldn’t let our work or other’s reactions to our work define us and our well-being.

With Louis-Dreyfus inhabiting her character with an anxious, believable energy, “You Hurt My Feelings” remains an appealing watch, as Beth and company navigate rocky waters of communication and come to realizations that gently inform their existences going forward. This reflects life, in a sense, as some people change and some don’t, but the film still lacks heft. By the end, it takes a surprisingly light touch to its flawed characters, saying little of significance in the process.

That’s not to say the experience of watching “You Hurt My Feelings” isn’t enjoyable, though. Holofcener’s dialogue crackles with snarky wit, as Beth bumbles her way around NYC – casually critiquing plenty of people along the way, sometimes in offensive fashion. Beth herself, whether she realizes it or not, strategically deploys truths and little white lies in her day-to-day life — whether it’s half-heartedly volunteering at a church clothing giveaway to feel like a “good person,” to feigning interest in her students’ off-putting story ideas. 

Louis-Dreyfus sells Beth’s outwardly bubbly nature and conceitedness, friendliness belying a lack of self love and belief in her own abilities as a creative. Her mother, Georgia (the always excellent Jeannie Berlin), perpetuates Beth’s anxieties through humorous passive-aggressiveness.

Beth trusts Don more than anyone else, however, so his seeming “betrayal” hits her like a wrecking ball, which Louis Dreyfus neither undersells nor overplays; if anything, the film would have benefited from a more cartoonish expression of her panic. As it stands, it’s difficult to connect with her concerns: they’re monumental to her, but as outside observers, they seem trivial, and Holofcener never dives deeply into her background or creative drive to establish real pathos for her plight. 

She loves Don and Don loves her. Of course Don wants to be a supportive husband, of course he wouldn’t tell her his true feelings about her writing (which we’re never led as viewers to believe is actually praiseworthy), as he recognizes that his opinions are ultimately irrelevant: he’ll support her no matter what. This is evident from the outset, and, with some late-movie platitudes lacking nuance delivered by Teague (doing the most with a clichéd character), renders the core conflict of “You Hurt My Feelings” fairly shallow and predictable.

Aside from Beth’s unwarranted stressors, “You Hurt My Feelings” explores other facets of this idea, as people in her social bubble navigate similar waters of honesty and dishonesty, truth and lies, in their personal and professional bonds. Don, stressed about aging and exhausted from a string of demanding clients while putting on a brave face (which Menzies embodies with subtly-calibrated mannerisms), avoids admitting to his cataclysmic falsehood. This doesn’t pan out well, but guess what? Communication is key, as usual.

Sarah encounters her own challenges — her whole job involves appeasing finicky clients with artwork to adorn their homes, smiling and gritting her teeth, with plenty of unused insults at the ready under her breath. Mark struggles to find meaning and work as an actor, while Sarah stands behind him through thick and thin, notwithstanding she doesn’t think he’s all that good all the time.

Boosted by Holofcener’s zinger-filled screenplay and patient editing that zeroes in on expressions and awkward pauses, “You Hurt My Feelings” depicts these situations with a crowd-pleasing touch, but that doesn’t excuse that they aren’t all that compelling to watch in the first place. Indeed, the film’s muted style and inherent softness misses opportunities to critique its characters on a more foundational level, not fully selling their problems nor Beth’s gradual gaining of self-awareness. It’s not all that dramatic, or relatable, as we (im)patiently wait for the characters to catch up with reality.

Perhaps I’m the wrong demographic for this story, and perhaps the film’s lack of spectacle is the point, but it remains slight, less a meaningful story than a batch of gently amusing scenarios in service of relatable yet obvious messaging.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“You Hurt My Feelings” is a 2023 comedy-drama written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Owen Teague, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, David Cross, Amber Tamblyn, Zach Cherry and Jeannie Berlin. It is rated R for language and runtime is 1 hour and 33 minutes. It opened in theaters May 26. Alex’s Grade: B-.

By Lynn Venhaus

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” – The Serenity Prayer

This is really a movie with the Serenity Prayer theme front and center. A grieving alcoholic father’s road to redemption is wrapped around an inspiring high school sports story – think “Hoosiers” meets “A Star is Born” (2018), “The Verdict,” and/or “Flight.”

Once a high school hotshot, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) threw away his full ride to Kansas. His adult life – construction job, failed marriage, personal tragedy – has not turned out that well either. Using alcohol to mask his pain and self-hatred, he’s mired in a bad place. Then, his alma mater, Bishop Hays High School, calls to offer the head coach job. Going back to the school where he had his glory days proves to be redeeming as he turns around the team. But it’s not an overall fix, as he needs to deal with his demons and addiction, and his family ultimately helps put him on the path to recovery.

“The Way Back” is not your typical rah-rah sports underdog tale, to director Gavin O’Connor’s credit. O’Connor worked with star Ben Affleck in one of his best performances, “The Accountant,” and gave us “Miracle” about the U.S. 1980 Olympic hockey team and his acclaimed estranged family drama with a mixed martial arts focus, “Warrior.”

O’Connor knows how to stage sports action and captures well the re-energized youths of the Hays Tigers, with stand-out performances from Melvin Gregg as showboat Marcus and Brandon Wilson as loner Brandon, the team’s best player. Al Madrigal is memorable as assistant coach Dan.

But make no mistake, this is Ben Affleck’s comeback, and the parallels between his real-life battles with alcoholism, relapse and recovery come into play. You can’t help but think of his demons that he has wrestled with his entire life, for it is a genetic family disease.

Many families can relate to this struggle, which is why the film succeeds. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s realistic.

Beefy, with slumped shoulders signaling life defeat, Jack makes it through the day by drinking. He’s a construction worker with a cooler in his truck and vodka in his water bottle. After work, he’s either stopping at a liquor store or is a barfly, helped up the steps of his drab L.A. apartment at closing time.

His family watches his self-destruction. Sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) sees their father in Jack’s downward spiral. His ex-wife Angela (Janina Gvankar) tries to be supportive.

While he can’t get a handle on adulting, he sure finds his purpose in coaching his alma mater’s basketball team. He turns the team into a unified group who believes in their ability to win.

Yet, until Jack deals with his alcoholism, his life can’t get back on track. So, we see all the steps – the hitting bottom, the facing his troubles in rehab, the making amends. It’s a one day at a time process, no simple solutions.

It’s a sobering film, unconventional in a way because nothing is neatly tied up.

Understated, using natural light and dark shadows, its view is clear, despite some clunky transitions in the script by Brad Ingelsby.

And Affleck, with a strong body of work – and two Oscars – doesn’t have to prove his talent, but shows he is ready to move on to a better second act.

And his character sees more clearly now because of this hard-fought journey, which is reason to cheer, no matter how the team did in the playoffs.

The Way Back” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and starring Ben Affleck. It is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. Running time is: 1 hr. 48 min. Lynn’s Grade: B+.