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Julia Louis-Dreyfus tries to sort out truth from comforting fiction in "You Hurt My Feelings."

More than 20 years I’ve been banging on about Nicole Holofcener in these pages. I’m not sorry, either. She came up during the indie-film boom of the 1990s with her debut feature Walking and Talking, and with the entire film landscape changed around her, she’s still here making small-scale, exquisitely well-written comedies about neurotic, educated people on the coasts. Her movies don’t have obvious selling points, which is precisely why they need selling. All six of her films have been well worth the time I spent seeing them, and her latest, You Hurt My Feelings, might just be the best of them as it opens in multiplexes this week.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays Beth Mitchell, a New York writer whose memoir of her abusive childhood was published to underwhelming sales. Now she’s feverishly working on her debut novel, and while her psychotherapist husband Don (Tobias Menzies) keeps saying that it’s great, her agent (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is much more lukewarm. Then one afternoon Beth happens to spot Don in a clothing store and sneaks up behind him to say hello, only to hear him shredding her book to her brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed).

If this strikes you as a slender thread to hang a movie on, it works because it dovetails so neatly with myriad other subplots that are all about the white lies we tell other people in order to spare their feelings. Beth can’t believe that Don has been lying to her, but she does much the same thing when her creative writing students pitch their terrible ideas in class. For that matter, Mark is a fragile actor who keeps threatening to quit show business and needs constant validation from his wife Sarah (Michaela Watkins) and everybody else around him. Beth and Don both tiptoe around their young son (Owen Teague), a cannabis shop manager who has taken forever to write his first stage play. Don, for his part, receives a taste of someone else’s unvarnished opinion when he sees a patient (Zach Cherry) over Zoom and then hears the guy mutter “Fucking idiot!” to himself just before they hang up.

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The scene where Beth finally confronts Don over his literary opinion is rewarding, but every scene with Don counseling a married couple (played by real-life married couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) is a masterpiece of escalating marital pettiness: “She makes salads for me! She’s telling me I need to lose weight! That’s passive-aggressive!” At last when Don snaps at them and tells them it’s past time for them to divorce, it’s an unprofessional moment that will make you feel like cheering.

Louis-Dreyfus previously starred in Holofcener’s Enough Said, and she’s quite good here, but her English co-star delivers the real star turn. Menzies played Prince Philip on The Crown, and you will never recognize him as this slovenly, recessive American who secretly thinks he’s making all his patients worse. These are two more fine-boned portraits in the gallery of funny characters Holofcener has written for the likes of Jennifer Aniston, James Gandolfini, Frances McDormand, Rebecca Hall, and the late Anne Heche. They are what make her films treasurable, and the structure of You Hurt My Feelings makes it even more so.

You Hurt My Feelings
Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies. Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. Rated R.

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