March 1, 2023    PsychologyArtsReview

Film Review: “Stutz”

I’d say Netflix’s documentary, Stutz, was a worthy experiment, but Jonah Hill didn’t have enough insight into the topic to pull it off. Early in the film, he admitted it wasn’t working as expected. For a capable director, I think a week of shooting in his office with a few cameras on tripods would have sufficed. If I heard correctly, he spent about a year shooting it, even though the film did not capture any personal transformation requiring that long.

The film could have demonstrated how Stutz’s “tools” transforms a client, but Hill was not willing to be that vulnerable. Instead of showing, he simply told how the therapy worked for him.

It could have been a biographical portrait of Phil Stutz, but Hill was more interested in sharing his “tools” with others who might benefit from them. For that purpose, Stutz’s biographical story is irrelevant. To some degree, the less we know about the therapist, the better so that it would not distort the way we think about his tools.

Since Hill lost focus during production, he couldn’t achieve either. But, it was a worthwhile effort because we rarely see how psychotherapy works in real life. Even therapists themselves cannot see how other therapists perform because of confidentiality. The best we have are reenactments or Hollywood dramatizations.

But, in my view, Phil Stutz isn’t a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst. I’d say he is best described as a coach. He coaches people to use his tools. Whether it has therapeutic values would depend on how well each client uses his tools.

I read some therapists criticizing Stutz for developing a friendship with his client, but it is not problematic if you think of him as a coach. Most people would not be concerned about befriending their athletic coaches or personal trainers. At one point in the film, Stutz wishes Hill would not “dump” on him. This, too, is consistent with him being a coach; as a coach, he does not need to know Hill’s personal problems. Some of them could be used as examples to demonstrate how to use his tools, but they are not useful beyond that. Stutz is not there to console him; he wants Hill to use his tools to overcome his problems on his own. Conventional concepts like transference are irrelevant to coaching.

This is what Hill liked about Stutz. The film promo included one of the most memorable statements he made: “In traditional therapy, you’re paying this person, and you save all of your problems for them, and they just listen, and your friends, who are idiots, give you advice. Unsolicited. And you want your friends just to listen. And you want your therapist to give you advice.”

What this tells us is that he doesn’t like psychotherapy and prefers coaching. It’s not that Stutz is better than other therapists; Hill was looking for something other than psychotherapy. There is a legitimate reason neither psychotherapists nor psychoanalysts offer advice. Stutz designed his tools to be universal. The particularity of each client is secondary to him. There are indeed universal aspects of being human, and such tools could potentially address them. (In fact, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) comes close to being a universal tool too. It claims to be more scientific or “evidence-based.”)

Personally, I did not find any of his tools useful, but I respect therapists and coaches who develop their own frameworks. If the aim of therapy is to address the particularity of individuals, the particularity of therapists cannot be ignored. Aaron Beck developed CBT partly because of who he is. Nobody else will be a better Aaron Beck than he is. Trying to imitate him by suppressing who you are will guarantee mediocrity. Your ultimate goal as a therapist should be to develop your own style. From this point of view, Stutz is exceptional in that he appears to be entirely liberated from the history of psychotherapy. Not many therapists have the courage or audacity to pull it off. They are tempted to piggyback on the existing authority for marketing purposes. Ironically, as a therapist, Stutz is singular, while his tools are universal.

Perhaps this is what Jonah Hill attempted to do in his art; scrap everything he knows about filmmaking and develop his own framework for storytelling. But, alas, he did not succeed this time.