Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ talents on show in expertly funny film

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You Hurt My Feelings ★★★★
(MA) 93 minutes

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ athletic comic rhythm of pushiness followed by self-doubt hasn’t shifted much since her Seinfeld days. But in the right context her reflexes are as sharp as ever, as she shows in Nicole Holofcener’s expertly funny You Hurt My Feelings, which tackles many topics that might easily have been debated by the Seinfeld gang: when you should throw out your underwear, for instance, or the etiquette of sharing an icecream cone.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus shows her comedy reflexes are as sharp as ever.Credit: Jeong Park/A24 via AP

Also in the Seinfeld tradition is the attention given to the minutiae of language, especially in relation to status. Is it really a compliment if you tell someone they look “adorable”, or if you describe a literary work as “pleasing”?

Such nuances loom especially large for Louis-Dreyfus’ character Beth, a New York writing teacher who has just finished her first novel (a follow-up to her moderately successful memoir I Had To Tell It, which recounts her traumatic childhood history of “verbal abuse”).

Her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) has supported her through draft after draft – but, as she discovers through an overheard conversation, the enthusiasm he expresses to her face may not be entirely genuine.

Don, who works as a therapist, has comparable reason for unease in his own professional domain, as do Beth’s sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) and Sarah’s husband Mark (Arian Moayed), an interior decorator and an actor respectively.

Arian Moayed and Michaela Watkins in You Hurt My Feelings, a film where in almost every scene characters are forced to make the awful choice between kindness and honesty.Credit: Jeong Park/A24 via AP

Indeed, just about every scene in You Hurt My Feelings offers a new variation on the theme, with one or more of these characters forced to make the awful choice between kindness and honesty, wondering how far they’re being politely lied to in turn, or facing the challenge of dealing with negative feedback when it arrives.

Seemingly less prone to such anxieties is Beth and Sarah’s caustic mother Georgia (the great Jeannie Berlin) whose bluntness gives a sense of where at least some of her daughters’ neuroses might have sprung from.

As in Holofcener’s earlier comedies of manners such as Friends With Money, the approach here is slightly abstracted but never too heightened: the terrific actors have all come to play, but their characters aren’t reduced to pure sitcom types.

Don’s sessions with his patients are portrayed with some realism – refreshingly, he appears to be neither great at his job nor terrible – and unlike on Seinfeld everyone is allowed at least the possibility of genuine psychological growth, though it’s always a matter of small steps rather than big leaps.

To use another dubious term of praise, it’s all highly relatable, however distant you might feel from this particular social circle of well-off New Yorkers. Holofcener knows as well as anyone around how to make us cringe and laugh by turns, or simultaneously – and I’m not just saying that.

You Hurt My Feelings is in cinemas from June 15.

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