In both of his films, actor-turned-filmmaker Jonah Hill has cut a part of his life out and sculpted it into something beautiful and abundant in meaning. With Mid90s, he scrapbooked the dog days of his 90s youth into a film about growing up too fast. It felt a bit like Peter Pan meets Dazed and Confused, about how your youth collides into people and events that make it vibrant, mischievous, painful and life-altering. It was the work of a filmmaker who seemed very adept at digging into his past and making it all matter for something, the good and the bad.
Stutz is a different bird, but still flying in the same skies that Hill looks to in the ways he wants to understand himself through his filmmaking. Here, Hill lifts his longtime therapist Phil Stutz to a platform the latter hasn’t ever gotten, an entire Netflix documentary in which his last name is the fixation point. Sure, we come because we know Hill. Our uncles took us to see Superbad when we were too young to buy an R-rated ticket, and we see GIFs of him from The Wolf of Wall Street pass us by daily on social media. His is a recognizable face to anyone who has brushed against pop culture in the last 15 years, and Hill is smart enough to know he can leverage his celebrity into something powerful. That’s what he’s done with Stutz.
Therapists being elevated to celebrity status isn’t a new sensation. Longtime self-help guru Eckhart Tolle got more guest verses on the latest Kendrick Lamar album than most anyone in the rap space, on an album where Lamar openly dealt with what he had to confront in his own therapy sessions. It’s not new for people to openly deal with how therapy has helped them, but what Hill is doing with Stutz isn’t common. Rather than position the spotlight on a self-guided tour into his own healing, Hill tries to share the methods and the man who have helped him heal. It’s an act of stark benevolence for his therapist and his audience. He also cuts out the bullshit in letting the filmmaking process hide the real work being done in real time between he and Stutz, with the film about 30 minutes in deconstructing itself Charlie Kaufman-style into what’s actually happening behind the scenes.
Therapy can make you feel weightless. To anyone who has sat down for a session that’s unpackaged something that’s troubled them or found a realization hidden in the sands of their hurried minds, you’ve been able to feel the inescapable rush of realization. Therapy can brighten your day and save your life all in the same sentence. Hill’s work with Stutz seems to have reshaped a lot of how he looked at himself and how he has been able to cope with his past. The brass tax of Stutz’s methods isn’t supposed to be revolutionary, but it is profound and adaptable. Hill’s direction keeps this at an edifying pace, with Stutz obviously a natural in being able to share his wisdom for a wide audience. The documentary is designed for the viewer to take home the methods Hill likely uses daily. It’s not easy to tell people you’re in therapy, much less open up that process for the entire world to see. As much as Hill wants to use his platform to pay homage to his beloved therapist, he’s also letting viewers see a side of himself that’s quite vulnerable and honest. He openly acknowledges how this experiment wouldn’t work if the audience couldn’t see the strings, and it’s a brave way for him to further his directorial career.
Phil Stutz seems to have helped a great number of people, and this documentary is going to further his gospel on one of the biggest entertainment platforms out there. For that alone, it’s hard not to see Hill’s sophomore feature as anything but a resounding success. However, there is something even more striking at the documentary’s heart. Hill uses his film not only to share Stutz’s secrets, but also his humanity. Hill spends as much time trying to help his therapist grapple with his own life, focusing heavily on his past and his Parkinson’s diagnosis. There is a mutual flow of love going from one to the other, to the point where this escapes a typical sense of reserved therapy into just two people who care about each other and want the other to thrive.
Stutz is not a typical therapist; he says so in the documentary. He wants to actively play a role in his patient’s progress rather than let them do all the work themselves. While that certainly takes a special type of person to pull that off with results, Stutz seems to have it on lock and key. Hill has gone from being one of the best comedic talents of his generations to being one of the most tenderhearted filmmakers working, and his willingness to honor his close friend and therpast doubles as a laudable act of openness on Hill’s part. He knew the best way to lift Stutz up was to open up the process, and in the end, it’s not only Hill who is going to benefit from being able to learn from Stutz. In a vacuum of so much vapid self-help entertainment, Stutz feels like the rare outlier that breaks through the noise and takes root. It’s a stirring piece of filmmaking, My Dinner with Andre meets Dick Johnson is Dead, but it also possess an uncanny power to reach its viewer in ways it didn’t expect. The ultimate victory of Hill’s film isn’t that you feel impressed when it’s over. It’s that you’re more focused on Stutz’s ideas than the movie itself.