The new film from Nicole Holofcener is called “You Hurt My Feelings,” but so what? That could be the title of any Holofcener movie. Less than five minutes into her first feature, “Walking and Talking” (1996), a therapist said to her patient, who was in conflict with his wife, “Why do you think she’s always hurting your feelings?” Since then, audiences have been treated to “Lovely & Amazing” (2001), “Friends with Money” (2006), “Please Give” (2010), and “Enough Said” (2013)—all of them written and directed by Holofcener, and none of them unmarked by emotional dents and dings.
At the heart of “You Hurt My Feelings” are Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies). She is a writer, he is a shrink, and they live in New York—how crazy is that? I mean, where do filmmakers come up with these ideas? Beth and Don have a son, Eliot (Owen Teague), in his early twenties, who is a sniper in the Marine Corps, with eleven kills under his belt. Correction: he is toiling in a weed store and writing a play. Also in the picture are Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), who supplies interior décor to the unappeasable rich, and her husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), an actor. And here’s the kicker: these people aren’t very good at what they do, but few of them are candid enough to admit it.
Don, for example, worries that he’s losing his touch. And he’s right to fret. We drop in on his therapy sessions, where he sits in a state of near-numbness, offering either bland advice or none at all. One patient, Jim (Zach Cherry), mutters “He’s an idiot” at the end of an appointment, and a couple named Carolyn (Amber Tamblyn) and Jonathan (David Cross), who can be sure of a medal if bickering ever becomes an Olympic sport, wind up asking Don for their money back. (Tamblyn and Cross are married in real life, doubtless dwelling in perfect harmony.) There’s a nice irony humming in the background: before Menzies played Don, he was the Duke of Edinburgh in “The Crown,” and you keep waiting for him to spice up Don’s efforts as a shrink with a dash of Prince Philip—“For God’s sake, take your bloody heads out of your backsides and stop moaning.”
The crunch comes when Beth, who has written her first novel, overhears Don say that he doesn’t like it. And that’s it. That is the imperishable horror on which the movie turns. Beth, certainly, can imagine nothing worse. She reacts as if Don had been charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court. “I think I’m gonna be sick,” she says, declaring that she’ll no longer be able to look him in the face. Finally, she confronts him in the street and just about manages to gasp the words “It’s my w-w-work.”
Delusions of creativity are always funny, because they rely on such a spectacular lack of self-knowledge. Is there a cure, apart from a steady job in a laundromat or a slaughterhouse? If I bumped into Beth, I’d give her a copy of Francis Bacon’s conversations with the art critic David Sylvester, in which Bacon says, “It’s very pleasant to be praised, but it doesn’t actually help you.” He claims that the most useful criticism is the destructive kind, adding that, to his regret, he can’t practice such destruction on the work of friends. Sylvester asks, “Do you find that you can criticize their personalities and keep them as friends?” and Bacon replies, “It’s easier, because people are less vain of their personalities than they are of their work.”
One twist, in the tale of Beth’s vanity, is that she’s played by Louis-Dreyfus. You therefore automatically think, Well, this setup might possibly furnish a single episode of “Seinfeld.” Whether it’s enough to sustain a whole movie is another matter. Holofcener’s solution is to spread the vulnerability around—to suggest that most of her characters suffer from a Beth-like itch for reassurance, inflamed into a rash of self-pity. “I look tired. I’m aging,” Don remarks, staring into a mirror. Mark, fired from a role in a play, says, “I’m tired of wanting validation and never getting it.” Eliot complains of being ignored, because his parents (until this recent crisis, at least) love each other so much. Bummer. The implication is not simply that our feelings get hurt but that they exist in order to be hurt, and that the folks around us should bathe and bandage the wounds.
Given this mockable array, Holofcener goes surprisingly easy on her troupe of fools. Could it be that, over the years, her approach to the hypersensitive has lost a pinch of sourness and grown more sympathetic? What doesn’t vary is the size of her chosen world, and “You Hurt My Feelings,” true to form, hunkers down inside a tiny subset of society. Engagement with troubles outside the stockade, as it were, is confined to brief and maladroit lunges at charity—a running gag in “Please Give” and again here, as Beth and Sarah dole out secondhand clothes at an open-air stall, the aim being to cosset their consciences (“It’s really great to give back”) while vaguely succoring the needy. As any reader of Jane Austen will argue, a small dramatic arena is no handicap, and it can become the stage for the most expansive passions. I confess, however, that there were moments in this new film when I prayed for Beth, Don, and the gang to be harried down Madison Avenue by cybernetic pterosaurs firing Sidewinder missiles tipped with alien venom. Alternatively, you could invite them all to spend a week in Wyoming. But that would be science fiction.
As career moves go, the path from neo-Nazism to horticulture has not, perhaps, received the attention it deserves. That strange omission is rectified by “Master Gardener,” the new movie from Paul Schrader. It stars Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth, who manages the formal gardens at the Gracewood estate. It’s a grand if melancholic place, owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), whose name is like a mashup of Norma Desmond and Miss Havisham, and whose gaze could nip the buds off a damask rose at forty yards.
What Norma knows, and what it takes us a while to learn, is that Narvel, complaisant and taciturn, with an immaculate side part, hasn’t always been so well mannered. When he removes his shirt, we see the double lightning bolt of the S.S., a skull and crossbones, and the legend “White Pride” tattooed across his shoulder blades. Gradually, flashbacks fill us in: Narvel was once a shaggy foot soldier of the ultra-right, who committed murder for the cause, and snitched on his brothers-in-arms for the sake of a new identity and a fresh life. In short, he has, in accordance with the Book of Isaiah, beaten his spears into pruning hooks—or, at any rate, traded his handgun for a pair of pruning shears. Not that his old skills have been left to rust. “I’m a gardener,” he says, squaring up to a couple of no-good punks and brandishing the shears. “Done a lot of pruning.” If you don’t want to be deadheaded, stay clear.
Will audiences buy the conceit of this misfit, the way that they bought the idea of the minister, in Schrader’s “First Reformed” (2017), who was so riled by the fate of the Earth that he donned an explosive vest? Hard to say. Narvel, alone in his room, sits and writes in a journal just as the minister did. (If you want to qualify as a Schrader hero, transcribing and reciting your innermost thoughts is pretty much de rigueur.) “Gardening is a belief in the future,” he proposes, foreseeing that “change will come,” yet the manner of the transformation is weirdly withered and dry. To and fro the characters come and go, with a slightly stunned air, weighing their lines of dialogue before they speak. Schrader has always been drawn to reticence—think of Richard Gere and his sly smile in “American Gigolo” (1980)—but the exciting sense of a soul under pressure makes way, in Narvel’s case, for the merely glum.
Violence, of course, is preparing to flower. Such is the rule in Schrader’s field of vision. What leads to the outburst, in “Master Gardener,” is the arrival at Gracewood of Norma’s grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell). She is, as Norma announces with relish, of “mixed blood.” Narvel’s duty is to take Maya on as an apprentice—“There are, in fact, thirty-eight different kinds of hoes,” he tells her, sincerely hoping not to be misheard—and his destiny is to fall in love, and, in the process, to find redemption for his sins. Again, though, there’s a curious want of urgency; the link between the lovers seems more willed than instinctive, let alone lit with any fervor. It’s almost as if the movie were following the blueprint of a moral scheme, like the layout of a herbaceous border, and plausibility be damned.
One thing I do believe in is the power of Sigourney Weaver. She makes Norma authentically scary, investing every gesture with the fierce languor of entitlement. Norma demands—not requests—sexual favors from Narvel, her dark eyes drinking in his bodily insignia, and as she holds out her wineglass for a refill, at lunch, with a butler standing by, you suspect that she’d be quite happy to step back two hundred years, and out into gardens tended by the enslaved. “Here we are, in the muck of the past,” she says, referring to her family history. But muck is the rich soil from which she blooms. ♦