dir: Nicole Holofcener
Wah wah you hurt my feewings wah wah
No this isn’t the brutal takedown of contemporary morals and morays, millennial pieties or Gen Z or even Generation Alphas, and their woke sensitivities to not murder asylum seekers or torment endangered species or intersectionality bingo.
This flick is all about middle-aged white people! Being middle aged! And sensitive! With feelings!
Their feelings! Not your pathetic feelings. Their feelings!
If you aren’t familiar with the films of Nicole Holofcener, you may not be that interested in a new one of her films coming out. But if you’re a fan of her flicks, such as Friends with Money, Please Give, Enough Said, and now this one, you’re in for a treat.
Well, as much as a treat as you can expect from these low-key, subdued movies.
Enough Said was particularly enjoyable, not only for another wonderful performance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but also as a gentle swan song for the great James Gandolfini, who died soon after. Best known for playing a raging psychopath mob boss in The Sopranos, Gandolfini got to go out in style playing a quiet, complex man who doesn’t have to strangle people to death in order to get his feelings across.
Louis-Dreyfus, if you like her, is just the gift that keeps on giving. Best known for playing Elaine in Seinfeld, with each film role and other show that she’s done she’s consistently shown that there’s so much more to her than any of the other hacks on that terribly watchable sitcom (with the possible exception of Jason Alexander, who also always had more depth than the show allowed him to show: Jerry and Kramer on the other hand? Nothing but surface).
This is not that much of a variation on her usual films, in terms of how it feels, rather than the themes. It’s still low stakes small potatoes stuff, but that’s the inherent pleasure of it.
The main set up is that there’s a (white, wealthy) middle-aged couple. She’s a writer, and a creative writing teacher (maybe at a community college). He’s a therapist. They’ve been together for decades, and that’s fine. They have a son, a barista, who they hope could be doing more with his life.
They are like millions of other people, probably. No economic pressures or cost of living issues whatsoever. Beth (Louis-Dreyfus) had a memoir published years ago, and has been struggling with finishing her next book. Don (Tobias Menzies) listens to his patients but doesn’t care and doesn’t feel like he can help them anymore. In a surprising scene he starts realising midway through a statement that he’s confused one patient with another.
The great, great reoccurring couple he tries and fails to help has David Cross and Amber Tamblyn, a married couple in real life, tearing strips ruthlessly off of each other in a way that is hilariously uncomfortable. After two years of this bullshit Don figures out that he’ll never be able to help them.
What this flick is about, is nothing about the set up I’ve just described. Wow, that sentence was pretty wonky. This film is about the well-meaning, so-called “white” lies we tell each other in long term relationships, in families, in life. Someone asks “does this dress make my arse look big?” If you know they want you to say “no”, then of course the answer is always “No.”
“Did you like my poem / short story / novella / novel / article / song / interpretive dance?”
“Of course. It was lovely.”
“Look what I made in Art today mummy. Do you think it’s great?”
“Of course it’s great sweetie, you’re a genius.”
Why do we go along with these minor fictions? Because they’re necessary. Because they’re vital to maintaining the fabric of relationships and society. Because it’s easier this way and because we’re cowards.
Despite the fact that every time Beth has asked Don to read her drafts he’s always come back saying the book is fine and she will do great.
But one day, one fateful day, Beth overhears Don talking to a friend of theirs, saying that he’s sick of being asked, he doesn’t like reading the drafts and he wishes she’d stop asking.
What a betrayal! Beth is inconsolable. If Don lied about liking her book, what else has he lied about?
She doesn’t tell him straight away. Several days elapse, and she’s scrutinising him, unable to accept that anything is that real in their relationship, which had been, up till that point, a pretty solid one. The penny’s dropped and she’s waiting for something else to trigger the fall of the whole house of cards.
It doesn’t help that she’s insecure (in general and about the book specifically) about her vaunted status as an author. She’s internalised the verbal abuse she endured from her father, which was also a significant part of the memoir she wrote, into just how she feels about her writing now, that it’s the work of a “shithead”. She teaches a class full of people who are competent writers, maybe, who don’t even know who she is. She rankles when she hears them talking about someone else’s best selling memoir, instead of hers.
The publisher doesn’t think her novel is going to strike a chord with the market, or that it’s controversial enough to excite outrage online, but everyone, including Don, keep telling her someone else will publish it.
They’re not the villains. People offering encouragement don’t see they’re doing anything wrong, but the difference now is that Beth can’t bring herself to believe it anymore.
And yet. What if the bland encouragement and supportiveness that we blindly offer each other does more harm than good? It is through a conversation with their son that they realise they fell into the trap that so-called helicopter parents fell into long ago, of believing that their belief, and not their children’s aptitude for anything, somehow was more important. That if they believed enough that their special precious little darlings artwork / swimming / trombone playing is great, that it will somehow be great, beyond any achievement on their kid’s part.
Then they have to grapple with the reality that, years ago, emptily praising their kid’s swimming abilities could have put them in danger, by insisting that they’re better than they actually were, how did putting them in the “advanced” class when they could barely swim encourage anything more than drowning?
Of course these parents who always thought of themselves as supportive and encouraging, the complete opposite of their own parents, never really thought through what the perils of being over-involved could be.
There are no villains here, at most it’s all just gentle misunderstandings, or people having unrealistic expectations that can’t be satisfied, and we all just keep chugging along. It doesn’t lead to any massive realisations or life transformations – the enmeshed couple are still enmeshed, but they’re more wary of over-praising their son or tempering their encouragement, at least. They’re the same people at the beginning as at the end; still sensitive, still vain, still silly, still wanting to be understood.
It’s all so gentle, all so enjoyable for me, with everyone on point and everyone contributing to their messy characters. So much disappointment, but people carry on. A modest success here or there, a bit of effort, going against one’s impulse to give up, and there is, eventually, something to be gained, and if that isn’t more true to life than anything else I’ve seen this month I don’t know what is.
I realise how narrow the level of interest out there is for these kinds of movies, but I’m a fan of them. It’s not just because it’s low stakes, or the problems of white middle class people beyond paying rent or having to move house (which is the absolute worst, just let me tell you. They’re just well observed, keenly detailed, and they’re effective.
7 times and don’t get me started on my problems with the milk frother on my coffee machine out of 10
“You’re competing with writers of all ethnicities. Refugees, cancer, murder, abuse.” – it’s hard out here for a writer - You Hurt My Feelings