‘Entertain me!’ is hardly the usual opening remark with which most psychotherapists begin a session with a client. However, Dr. Phil Stutz, the subject of this moving documentary directed by actor Jonah Hill, about his relationship with Stutz, his therapist/psychiatrist of many years is no ordinary shrink. Hill says more than once that the reason for making the movie is to share how Stutz and his unusual methodology helped him grow as a person and deal with painful issues such as losing his brother a few years earlier.
The film took over two years to complete and is likely to raise the eyebrows of many classically-trained psychotherapists who are used to the therapist taking a primarily listening role in the therapeutic relationship. Stutz is a doctor, psychiatrist and Hollywood celebrity therapist, famous for his ‘Tools’, dynamic techniques he teaches to empower his patients. His approach is closer to hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) than it is to the analytic approach where the analyst tends to say very little but nods solemnly at times.
As a therapist, Stutz has distilled years of experience and learning into a relaxed manner, acute listening and calibrating in the moment. It differs from conventional counselling in that Stutz will not only give advice (a ‘no-no’ in therapy and counseling) but emphatically tell his patients exactly what to do! His ‘tools’ such as ‘Grateful Flow’ and ‘Active Your Life Force’ are innovative and powerful body-mind exercises that make total sense to anybody trained in NLP or Ericksonian hypnotherapy. As a master practitioner he is able to use warm-hearted humour as an agent for change in the work – an approach developed by Frank Farelly in the 1970’s and gaining increasing legitimacy in the transpersonal therapy field.
What makes this camera-inside-the-therapy-room expose so fascinating is what is at the core of most successful psychotherapy – the relationship between the therapist and client. Jonah Hill is courageous in exposing his vulnerability and the tender relationship he has with Stutz demonstrates exactly how this relationship has been healing for him. His mother even makes an appearance for a triadic session and this encounter is also full of love and humour. The way in which the extroverted actor – now very comfortable in his once large body – and the unconventional, swearing and constantly wise-cracking, deadpan therapist interact is inspiring and an impressive advertisement for psychotherapy in general. However anybody expecting this style of work from the average therapist is likely to be disappointed.
While Hill made this film to document Stutz’s work and share his powerful tools, I found myself drawn to Stutz’s effective use of comedy. This is not of the stand-up variety to belittle or mock people but to help his clients wake up to the absurd ways we all can sabotage our lives. Hill is aware of this potency and at one point says ‘Don’t go on a comedy routine on me now bro’!’ Stutz replies with ‘I can’t tell you in the last three minutes how many jokes I’ve had to suppress.’ As a practitioner of Provocative Therapy, the cutting edge in the use of humour and reverse psychology in therapy, I found myself resonating much more with Stutz’s open personality, inherent warmth and humorous interventions than the more practical ‘Tools’ he has created to help his patients break through to healthier lives.
The film is very affirming of how successful therapeutic relationships can be healing and both Hill and Stutz deserve praise for opening up their relationship to anyone with a Netflix account. That said, don’t expect Stutz-like therapy on the NHS or from your average healthcare provider but do sit back and enjoy an excellent documentary on how wisdom, honesty and outrageous humour can be combined synergistically to great effect in human relationships.
Dr. Brian Kaplan, MBBCH, specialist in Provocative Therapy and co-author of Almost Happy: Pushing your buttons with Reverse Psychology (Loba Publications 2021). The ‘Are You Feeling Funny?’ podcast interviews with comedians about their health is on apple itunes.