In his documentary for Netflix, Stutz, actor Jonah Hill lays out his emotional life with a disarming directness. This was not his original vision for the film. As the director of Stutz, Hill preferred that the focus was on his therapist, Phil Stutz. Or should we say that Phil Stutz’s teaching is the subject–or is Jonah Hill is the subject? Hill asks Stutz:
“Why do you think I’m making this movie about you?”
As Hill explains it in the opening scene, the purpose of the black and white film is to share with a wide audience the strategies and tools which Stutz has taught him and that Hill has found useful. As Hill explains it, “Tools change your mood and then just give you a sense of hope that that won’t be your mood forever.”
To bring these tools to a wider audience is a noble goal for this intimate documentary. Throughout the film, Hill’s reverence for Stutz is evident; he invites us to regard Stutz with a similarly high esteem.
Stutz is in the process of deciding what it wants to be while we’re watching it. At some point, both Hill and Stutz give up all pretense that the documentary will not be a personal affair. They lay out their insecurities, their histories, and their tragedies. The result is a compelling and unusual exposition.
I wasn’t inclined to watch this documentary, as the premise of the film seemed self-indulgent. That was a snap-judgment and perhaps unfair. My preconceived ideas of Jonah Hill were based on his on-screen persona and off-screen comments which seemed crass. Yet the buzz is such that I sat down on a rainy Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea and my significant other who had also heard something about it on Facebook. Watching Stutz is a calmly pleasant and edifying experience.
Stuz’s Approach to Therapy
Stutz’s philosophy is to be active as a therapist; giving his clients advice rather than acting as a mute listener. This approach cuts through the artifice of the “tell me more” style of therapy, and the equally frustrating “how does that make you feel?” We want answers in this age of chaos and hedonism. Stutz’s self-assured demeanor is a kind of answer in and of itself. Regarding the traditional approach to therapy, Stutz declares bluntly:
“That sucks. That’s not acceptable.”
Clearly the man has a vision. How does Stutz’s approach compare to the more traditional “neutral” approach to therapy? For one thing, he is an excellent advocate of a more active role for the therapist. Stutz’s approach to a patient who is struggling with depression is the opposite of neutral:
“Do what the fuck I tell you. Do exactly what I tell you. I guarantee you’ll feel better. Guarantee, 100%. It’s on me.”
Jonah Hill likewise finds the “just listening” mode of therapy frustrating. For Hill, it makes much more sense for a therapist to give advice rather than just listen, which should be more the role of friends.
The strategies which Stutz offers include finding your mission, “activating your life-force”; and basics such as diet, sleep, and exercise, which he believes accounts for 85 percent of a person’s well being. The Grateful Flow is a method of focusing positive energy on things that you’re thankful for, and being propelled forward by that positive energy. Finally, Stutz also recommends journaling and other mental exercises to find a positive mindset, or a place of gratitude, as he phrases it. He explains his skill as a therapist:
“I zoom in on you and block out everything else.”
We get a sense from the determined yet lugubrious shine in Stutz’s dark eyes that he has a preternatural ability to heal people’s psychological wounds.
Stutz’s confidence is such that we hardly expect him to be vulnerable and wounded himself, as we later learn in the documentary.
Stutz is not quite the impenetrable guru with it all figured out. In the beginning of the film, he appears almost cocky. Here’s a guy who has seen everything, who can dole out advice but wouldn’t need any himself.
In fact, life has dealt Dr. Stutz a tough hand; he has merely done the best he could like the rest of us. Hence Stutz humanizes both the therapist and Jonah Hill (if you were not already sympathetic to the actor). Hill accuses Stutz of using his humor to avoid addressing his own issues. And what about his own romantic relationships? Stutz has none to speak of, besides vaguely alluding to an on again off again relationship with an unnamed woman in his past. His scant relationship experience puts him in an ironic position for advising others.
When an alarm goes off, and Jonah Hill tells Stutz, “Time to take your medicine,” we learn that Stutz suffers from Parkinson’s. Now 74, he has suffered from the disorder since he was in his ‘20s. His Parkinson’s makes basic mobility a struggle: We see him shake on camera, and stop for a break to rest in a nearby bed. Yet his Parkinson’s is not so severe as to interfere with his communication. Indeed, Stutz faces his predicament bravely. It is presumably from this experience that he gets his unique set of tools to approach the “pain, uncertainty, and constant work” which he considers inevitable in life.
Hill doesn’t want to go into his vulnerabilities initially: “This movie is about you, not about me,” he tells Stutz. Yet this resistance to delving into his own psyche is ultimately broken-down, and we learn much more about Jonah Hill the man.
As we know Hill from roles such as Don’t Look Up and The Wolf of Wall Street, he has a frat boy charm, he’s funny, and even a little obnoxious. In Superbad, a young Jonah Hill delivers a raunchy and humorous performance. But he also shows an ability to project vulnerability:
The death of his brother and other insecurities make the real Jonah Hill a more complex and neurotic figure. Namely, Hill suffers from a poor self-image due to being overweight as an adolescent. Despite his demons, and significant emotional distress, Hill’s struggle against his existential angst is admirable.
Though he is famous and can presumably have any material thing (and woman) that he wants, life is a struggle for Hill. He seems to have trimmed his weight a bit, but Hill still has a sense of himself as a fat kid. The increased spotlight only brought more unwelcome scrutiny to his appearance. His own mother is even implicated, joining her son and Stutz to discuss how she might have inadvertently contributed to Hill’s psychological troubles.
We ultimately come away much more sympathetic to Hill than we might have been prior to the film, merely based on his on-screen persona in over-the-top comedies. The documentary itself is a kind of grandiose gesture, which ultimately succeeds.
Though Hill is not very articulate, especially compared to Stutz, the documentary is a testament to his wit. Several moments of his extemporaneous humor are laugh-out-loud funny. Additionally, his ingenuous desire to be a better human being is touching and poignant.
Critical Response & Conclusion
With a 100% positive review on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics unanimously acclaimed Stutz. Many critics cited the warm relationship between Hill and Stutz as a focal-point of the film. On one hand, the film is about a therapy which uses hands-on strategies to relieve depression. But it’s also about the friendship between the two men, their personal charisma, and their witty banter.
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