Directed by Jonah Hill.
Starring Jonah Hill and Phil Stutz.
Follow Hill and his therapist as he has candid discussions of mental health and the progressively worsening anxiety attacks related to movie promotion that have turned his dream job into a nightmare.
Jonah Hill’s self-directed documentary about his own experiences in therapy has evident potential to come off as rather self-indulgent, yet Stutz more often succeeds in shining a light on a formative force in the 38-year-old actor’s life – his 74-year-old therapist, Phil Stutz.
At the outset, Hill outlines that he endeavoured to produce the film both as a tribute to Stutz and because he wanted to share the tools he’s learned from his years of sessions with Stutz – and, honestly, what better platform than Netflix, with its hundreds of millions of subscribers? Though fundamentally a bit dry – despite a few dubious meta flourishes – if you’re interested in Hill as a performer or therapy as a tool, there’s certainly plenty of emotional and intellectual nourishment to be found.
The doc transpires entirely within the apparent confines of Stutz’s Los Angeles office, presented here in crisp, contrasty monochrome for almost the entirety, while frequently relying on Errol Morris-style Interrotron-esque back-and-forths between Hill and Stutz.
The footage, cut together from several years of sessions between the two, primarily explores Stutz’s methodology of helping people feel better through their relationship with themselves and others. The main touchstones concern how we deal with and even find value in negative experiences, while making peace with immutable circumstances and rewiring how we process our attachments to our surroundings. Even if not everything Stutz espouses will fully connect with everyone, it’s tough not to see him as a confident force for good – and better for the sake of this doc, a fascinatingly irreverent figure.
Stutz has far more of a forthright demeanour than we’ve typically seen from therapists in films and TV; his mantra of “shut the fuck up and do what I tell you” certainly won’t work for all, but it is a refreshingly left-field approach nonetheless. As subject, Stutz generously details his own upbringing, of how his own parents’ issues with grief following his younger brother’s death inspired him to work on “fixing” people.
The big, unexpected rub, though, is that Stutz has been a long-time sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease, at one point even interrupting a session to take his medication. He speaks freely about his fear of not getting enough done before he dies, allowing his own vulnerability to come to the fore.
For many, the film’s appeal will however lie primarily with its A-lister co-star, yet it’s worth knowing that Hill is deeply reluctant to talk about himself here. “This movie is about you, not me,” he tells Stutz early on, even as Stutz encourages him to expound upon his own childhood traumas related primarily to his weight. Hill’s lack of desire to bring up his older brother Jordan ‘s 2017 death in particular feels a tad contrived at first, but given that he avoids the expected grandstanding “scene” where he finally lets his guard down, it lands as more genuine.
Hill devotes a few brief, vague minutes to his brother’s death, but seems far more eager to discuss the media’s cruel perception of him as an adult, again mostly related to his physical appearance. He also brings his mother Sharon into the fold briefly to chime in on their relationship during his youth.
While some viewers are liable to view this as a privileged individual working through the issues of their cushioned existence, that predictably pervasive attitude really only suggest the necessity of this film’s own. Society generally has such a poor understanding of mental health, and that’s perhaps even truer where wealthy, famous, and successful people are concerned. “How can they be depressed?,” we inevitably hear whenever a beloved celebrity commits suicide. As such, Stutz serves as yet another reminder that material wealth and Oscar nominations aren’t a gateway to ridding yourself of pain.
The film however perhaps gets a little too cute when it pulls the veil back on the filmmaking process in a manner that can’t not be called gimmicky. Hill reveals some of the more manufactured aspects of the doc’s creation in a way that can’t help but draw comparisons to Nathan Fielder’s recent meta-narrative hit The Rehearsal, yet ultimately these affectations feel like distractions from Hill’s broader mission to share his therapeutic experiences with the world.
Stutz certainly isn’t essential cinema, yet it absolutely contains worthwhile messages, offering up tools with which anyone can seek to change the way they view life. And while mileage will surely vary on the lessons within, in the very least Hill and Stutz make for pleasant company to spend 96 minutes with.
Easy though it’d be for Hill’s documentary to feel like a navel-gazing vanity project, Stutz ultimately lands as an earnest attempt to democratise the life-affirming tools he’s gained from therapy – and as a tribute to his titular therapist.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.