Many of us feel like we know Jonah Hill thanks to the false proximity we feel to celebrities, but the truth is we don’t. There’s one man who knows him perhaps better than anyone else in his life, though. That man is Phil Stutz - Hill’s therapist.
Last month, the actor and filmmaker released a project unlike anything he’s ever done before, in the shape of his Netflix mental health documentary Stutz. The film delves into the life of Hill’s friend, and renowned Hollywood therapist, Phil Stutz. Viewers are offered a front-row seat to the methods the former prison psychiatrist, and co-author of The Tools, offers his patients.
But the film is more nuanced than strictly a self-help guide. Over the course of the documentary, it becomes clear that the Academy Award-nominated actor has not been OK these past few years. The actor peppers the documentary with his own struggles; from trauma surrounding his weight, to grief over his brother’s sudden passing (in 2017, Hill’s older brother, Jordan, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism). But the focus is always drawn back to Stutz’s personal life and the quirky tools - concepts such as “Life Force” or embracing the “shadow self” - that could help viewers’ mental health issues.
Aside from bucking the trend of celebrity-fronted mental health documentaries that centre themselves and the unrelatable impacts of fame, the documentary has been praised for offering a lifeline to viewers who might not be able to afford a therapist such as Stutz, who’s been practising for more than two decades. Stutz also reveals an immeasurable bond between Hill and his therapist. The pair have an easy communication style: They swear at one another frequently, Stutz jokingly tells Hill to “shut up and listen to what I say”, and in one moving scene, Hill openly says he has no idea what will happen to him when Stutz, who has Parkinson's, dies.
The documentary raises so many questions about what kind of relationship we can have with a therapist and also: Is it okay to use this documentary as a guide to navigating our own mental health struggles? We asked James Davies, a qualified psychotherapist and author of Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created our Mental Health Crisis, for his thoughts on the documentary and Stutz’s methods.
VICE: Hi James, thanks for speaking to VICE. So, is Stutz a good therapist?James Davies: The assessment as to whether someone is a 'good therapist' depends on the measure being used. From the standpoint of some measures, Stutz rejects much that’s associated with good therapeutic work -maintaining boundaries, not giving advice and not relying on untested theories. But from other measures - developing a good therapeutic relationship, identifying common goals, displaying warmth and empathy - he appears to perform very well. There’s certainly a debate to be had here.
Innovation always begins with transgression, but the best innovators actively encourage the testing of their ideas - they seek validation through empirical enquiry and don’t just rely on positive anecdotes. Stutz relies on the latter, he departs from the tradition of science-led clinical practice - make of that what you will.
How does Stutz differ as a ‘celebrity and leading psychiatrist’ to a standard therapist viewers might see?
Davies: It differs in many ways: Stutz developed his ideas and practices in a very unique environment, working with a highly privileged Hollywood elite. Many of his clients appear to believe that he gives them special access to ‘higher universal forces’ so long as they apply his tools unquestioningly. For his approach, he claims an almost transcendental status, as might a shaman, diviner or necromancer.
He demands total faith for healing and life-transformation to occur. What distinguishes this approach from work in clinical psychology is that it’s totally divorced from any scientific evidence base. In the place of evidence, we have faith. In the place of research-led practice, we have charismatic leadership. If or when his approach ‘works’, I suspect it has less to do with the reasons he gives - the tools bringing you closer to the universal force - and more to do with his approach appealing to ‘common factors’, as we call them in psychology. Basically, this means the effective kindling of faith, hope and the placebo effect; the power of being heard, feeling close and feeling supported.
Is there an issue with befriending your therapist in the way Hill seems to have?
Davies: There’s a vast research literature on why the therapeutic frame, as its called, is important - it creates safety, facilitates healing, protects clients from rogue practitioners/practices. It preserves the notion that therapists are there to help clients create more fulfilling relationships in their own lives -rather than to act as a kind of paid substitute. I trust the general thrust of that literature.
Do you think the documentary and its methods could ever work in place of in-person therapy?
Davies: It's a fascinating and engaging watch, I also really like Stutz as a person. But I don't think watching a documentary - and temporarily adopting some of its suggestions - will ever be a replacement for good, long-term, in-person therapy. I suspect Stutz would agree with that too.
Usually therapists rarely advise or instruct, but Stutz takes on a more directive approach to Hill - is that problematic?
Davies: There are some very good psychological reasons why many therapists don't advise. It assumes we know better; it means we assume power over other peoples' lives and decisions (which can, over time, be very disempowering for the client) and it nurtures dependency in our client's (they learn to follow us, rather than to develop their own instincts for what is right, and their own decision making abilities). Aside from moments of crisis management - where some advice might be certainly appropriate - most therapists steer clear of 'taking the power', due to its possible long-term harmful effects.