Jonah Hill gets a tad experimental in his latest directorial outing. His new documentary Stutz – released earlier this month on Netflix – presents itself as a candid conversation between the director and his therapist, the eponymous Dr Phil Stutz. However, it openly deconstructs that premise once it establishes it. The film ultimately plays with different modes and styles. It’s part bio doc on the life of Dr. Stutz, but it’s also a participatory film, in which Hill introduces herself as a crucial, primary subject. Meanwhile, it also dabbles in attempts at direct cinema, cinéma verité and the quasi-avant-garde. This colorful mix of forms is sometimes harmonious and sometimes chaotic, but that unpredictable mix ultimately serves the thematic purpose of the film and shows important parallels between cinema and mental health.
‘Stutz’ abandons gloss for honesty
On the surface, Stutz has a strong emphasis on mental health, with the titular therapist sharing his essential philosophies of wellness. However, during the second scene, Hill reveals the farce behind the film: how the “candid conversation” was shot over the course of two years, with make-up, green screens, and editing techniques giving the illusion of continuity. In a moment as dubiously unscripted as any in the film, Hill expresses his desire to create something sincere, with less movie magic that refines the story he’s trying to tell. As Hill jokingly paraphrases to Stutz, “the worse it is, the better we did.” In other words, since the project pursues fairness, the less shiny and sanitized it becomes, the more successful it is.
This balance between authenticity and illusion is something that all cinema – and especially documentary films – struggle with. At the other end of the illusion end of the spectrum would be film with a strong artistic hand, something thoroughly written with heavy editing, special effects or animation. Rather, at the most authentic end of the spectrum would be a direct documentary, with no script, few subjects, sparse cuts, and few camera movements. Where a film lies on the spectrum has to do with the extent to which the filmmaker decides to interfere with the medium’s indexical relationship to reality. In StutzHill wants to opt for authenticity, but also knows that total objectivity is unattainable.
Hill’s desire for unattainable perfection has a meaning that goes beyond just making movies. It bridges the medium to the film’s central theme, which is mental health. Just as a movie can never be truly objective, the human mind struggles to fully decipher its true self. Even when not placed in front of a camera, people take on performative roles in different situations. Meanwhile, they willingly leave other elements of their identities on the cutting room floor. Hill expresses how he experiences this conundrum, not only with his directing decisions, but in his desire to uphold a strong self-image while rejecting less desirable parts of his past.
As the film progresses and Stutz shares his life story, there are occasional sequences of Hill talking about his own journey of self-acceptance, and Stutz guiding him through the process. Stutz’s essential philosophy consists in the fact that there are three constants in life: pain, inconsistency and work. While these three constants are usually viewed as negative, Stutz argues that true happiness comes not from trying to avoid these inevitable realities, but from learning to embrace the process of navigating through them. This means learning to love your body, your peers, and yourself. Hill and Stutz both become more open throughout the film, building these tools together with the gratitude of embracing their vulnerabilities. All the while, the documentary seems to be slowly growing on its own, with Hill worrying less about the outcome of the project and appreciating the process.
At least, this seems to happen in the movie. Some moments remain overtly written, such as when Stutz claims he’s going home, only to lie down on a bed conveniently placed on the other side of the sound stage. However, the insights Stutz articulates while lying on that bed are more questionable: Are they scripted? Or are they sincere? As with any documentary, the audience can endlessly wonder to what extent these elements have been embellished. While most of the hard information presented throughout the movie is factual, the average viewer can never really know how sincere the two subjects are.
However, that is the nature of life. One can never fully know one’s true self. Everyone wears their own mask and plays a role laced with varying degrees of fakeness. StutzThe main message is that such falseness is a fundamental part of the human experience, and it is more important to acknowledge and come to terms with that falsehood than to avoid it altogether. Like any good artist, Hill uses his medium’s tools to explain that message, illustrating how filmmaking and a director’s constant pursuit of perfection is a clever metaphor for traversing one’s sanity and perhaps finding of inner peace through the latest version.