Netflix documentary showcases the strategies, warmth and shtick of a sought-after practitioner
It would be so easy to dismiss “Stutz,” a 90-minute documentary that at first glance might seem like an exercise in narcissism. The conceit: A highly celebrated actor-turned-director and a psychiatrist to the stars earnestly discuss the good doctor’s unique and quirky approach to therapy, which he calls “The Tools.”
Yet the film is saved by the heartfelt, genuine intentions of its maker, actor Jonah Hill, and the warm and wise counsel of the psychiatrist it’s named after, Phil Stutz. Dr. Phil himself struggles with emotional intimacy and chronic grief and has long battled the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. It’s a poignant portrayal of how hard it is to be human.
The Netflix documentary is a passion project of Hill’s, known for his humor in blockbusters like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” ”Get Him to the Greek,” and, more recently, “Don’t Look Up,” as well as dramatic roles in films like “Moneyball” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Hill is open about his struggles with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. He no longer promotes his work, he says, because public appearances only exacerbate these conditions.
“The whole purpose of making this film is to give therapy and the tools I’ve learned in therapy to a wide audience for private use,” Hill explains in an open letter. “I’m hoping to make it more normal for people to talk and act on this stuff, so they can take steps towards feeling better and so that the people in their lives might understand their issues more clearly.”
In the past, Hill has talked about how physical activity such as surfing and Brazilian style sessions of the martial art jiu-jitsu have been beneficial for his mental health, even as he has been the subject of brutal body-shaming in the media. In this film he sings the praises of his long-time therapist, who he credits with changing his life.
Over the course of this mostly black-and-white documentary, Hill and Stutz have candid and sometimes convoluted conversations about talk therapy and mental health. All of us have something in common, says the affable Stutz , a straight-talking New Yorker with a gentle demeanor and a fondness for profanity. Early on, viewers learn there are three aspects of life everyone must deal with: pain, uncertainty and constant work.
“Okay, entertain me,” Stutz says to Hill, at the beginning of therapy sessions. He also jokes: “You better not come here and dump all your shit on me.” Stutz asks all his patients the same questions: “What do you want?” and “Why are you here?” He’s not interested in just listening. Stutz, who has a background in prison therapy at the notorious Rikers Island facility, wants to see what he calls “forward movement.” He’s about action, growth and change – and giving patients homework to make that a reality.
Since he’s a visual learner himself, Stutz distills his big ideas, “The Tools,” into small line drawings–these days pretty shaky line drawings–so that what can seem like weighty, unwieldly notions are presented as simple, actionable items. These visualization techniques for psychotherapy concepts retooled with catchy handles such as “Life Force,” “The Maze,” and “String of Pearls” – have found a cult-like following among Stutz disciples.
“The Tools” are also the basis for a 2012 New York Times bestselling book of the same name co-authored by Stutz and psychotherapist Barry Michels. There’s even a Cliff notes-like guide to “The Tools” for Stutz viewers who want to revisit the ideas raised on the screen.
Stutz and Hill riff off each other, using wit to avoid uncomfortable emotions. They have other things in common: They have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, albeit for different reasons. Both have experienced profound grief following the untimely deaths of their brothers. And both confess on camera their doubts about whether this experiment, two plus years in the making, will succeed in landing heady ideas,breaking down the fourth wall and resonating with viewers – or be a total failure.
The pair also come clean about some industry tricks the film initially tries to get away with: the therapist’s office is actually a set; the film isn’t shot over the course of one session (despite the subjects wearing the same clothes). In one scene, Hill pulls off a wig to expose the charade; the film briefly turns to color to reveal a green room. The revised plan: authenticity, transparency, vulnerability. But will audiences forgive the initial deception?
Hill grew up overweight with little self-confidence or self-esteem. He felt unworthy and unlovable. That’s his shadow, Stutz explains, the version of ourselves we want to hide from the rest of the world. It’s something that makes us feel inferior, rejected, ashamed, despondent or embarrassed. It’s something we wish we could get rid of but we cannot.
Hill started working “The Tools” with the same fervor a person recovering from addiction might work “The Steps.” He’s found the practice an invaluable way to deal with his demons and difficulties and Stutz commends him as an ardent student, who’s always willing to put in the time. Along the way Hill seems to also have found relief from his mental health woes – and embraced moments of joy, ease and hope.
On a good day, he can accept himself, drown out the haters. The 38-year-old has been seeing Stutz – who he professes to love (professional boundaries go out the window here) – for several years. Hill doesn’t try to make light of what he’s endured. “It’s still very hard,” says the actor, who methodically labors his way through what he refers to as Stutz’s “greatest hits,” including teachings titled “Radical Acceptance, “The Grateful Flow,” and “Loss Processing.”
“It will be hard for the rest of your life,” says Stutz, matter-of-factly but empathically.
On the surface, of course, Hill appears to have it all: critical and commercial success, fame, fortune, privilege. And yet all that “stuff” hasn’t helped his mental health – depression and anxiety don’t care about such things. What sets Hill apart from many of of us who struggle with these conditions, perhaps, is that he has the time and resources to seek out coveted solutions. (Stutz reportedly charges north of $450 a session and hasn’t taken on a new client in years.)
Stutz, now 75, is his saviour in this respect, and Hill wants to share him and his ideas with those of us who can’t pay thousands of dollars a year in therapy but can manage a Netflix subscription. It would feel a little condescending were Hill not so likeable and sincere in his mission.
Long based in L.A. and sought after by Hollywood agents, screenwriters and actors alike, Stutz also shares his philosophy with regular people, including readers of GOOP (Gwyneth Paltrow’s controversial online lifestyle and wellness brand).
In the end (if viewers make it that far; it is a bit of an ask) it’s hard not to root for these two. Hill deserves freedom from unkind and merciless scrutiny in the media and the chance to move through the world without panic attacks or crippling depression. He is worthy of love. We all are – including the doctor, who professes during the course of filming “Stutz” to keeping a romantic interest at bay for decades. Hill – trading places on the metaphorical couch with Stutz – encourages him to take a risk and explore the possibility of committed emotional intimacy. “Humans are so fucked up,” says Hill. “We talk ourselves out of happiness.”
What stops the whole thing from feeling unbearably self-absorbed is the healthy dose of humor throughout. When Hill and Stutz profess their love for each other, it could have been a cringe-y moment. Then Hill says: “We should get married,” to which Stutz quips: “I want a prenup.” Mental health may be serious stuff, but these two frequently look for opportunities to lighten the mood.
Bottom line: “Stutz” – part self-help movie, part biopic, part filmed therapy session – features two blokes who struggle with mental health matters making a case for taking care of one’s emotional well-being. And who can argue with that?