The Oscar-nominated actor Jonah Hill makes an early promise in his new documentary, Stutz. Sitting across from his friend and personal shrink Phil Stutz, in what looks like a plush office overlooking the Los Angeles skyline, Hill declares that this isn’t going to be a filmed therapy session. “I’m making a movie about you, not about me,” he says after careful thought. And having made the decision, he shuts down a question about his brother. You get a sense of where this is going.
In the opening few scenes of Stutz, the film, which debuted on Netflix this week, Hill deflects every time his psychiatrist subject puts the spotlight on him, and asks a personal question. Stutz doesn’t seem to be prying, but one would assume that this is the only way he knows how to make conversation — by being curious, with empathy, and by breaking down walls. But Hill counters with what is second nature to him: jokes.
Best known for a handful of brilliant Judd Apatow comedies, which he followed up with a series of acclaimed performances in ‘serious’ movies, Hill made his directorial debut with the well-liked indie Mid90s — a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama inspired by his own childhood growing up in LA. A black-and-white streaming documentary isn’t what you’d expect as a sophomore effort from a budding young director, but Stutz will be seen as a vital part of Hill’s filmography years from now.
Of course, all those promises about the movie not being a therapy session are thrown out of the window literally minutes after they’re first made. And yes, Stutz never loses sight of its subject, but Hill is always willing to turn the camera on himself, almost as if he is eagerly waiting for the briefest sign of encouragement.
The cynical side in me wondered if the premise of the documentary — to share Stutz’s wisdom with the world and to highlight his eccentric personality — was an elaborate excuse for Hill to process his own brother’s death. But his friendship with Stutz feels too genuine to be manufactured for the camera.
In one scene, Hill breaks the fourth wall in such a surprising manner that it completely throws you off for a minute or two. By admitting that making a movie about his therapist requires him to lie for effect on camera (and behind it), the suddenly unreliable Hill opens the door for more conversations about what is real and what isn’t. The scene almost has the unsettling effect of HBO’s The Rehearsal, which remains the year’s strangest piece of ‘documentary’ filmmaking.
But unlike that show’s host, Nathan Fielder, Hill and Stutz both exude an honesty and warmth that draws you in, regardless of how seriously you take the ‘tools’ that they’ve come together to actually discuss. The self-help portions of the film, as expected, are the least engaging. Perhaps because nobody needs a movie to therapise them (even though that’s what most good movies actually end up doing). Hill swears by these ‘tools’, which Stutz has given names like ‘the maze’, and ‘the snapshot’, and ‘the shadow’. But it would do nobody any favours to get into what they mean here; and plus, nobody could explain these concepts better than Stutz himself.
“This will either be the greatest documentary ever made, or the worst,” he says in his thick New York accent, after Hill makes a confession about his insecurities with the project. “It’s probably both,” Stutz concludes, but makes it a point to tell Hill — his director — that one can only arrive at the truth via vulnerability.
It’s one thing for subjects in a documentary to feel emotionally vulnerable, but a director’s job is to use filmmaking tools to convey that feeling to the audience. I can’t be sure about this, but the camera set-up looks an awful lot like the ‘interrotron’ technique of conducting on-camera interviews pioneered by the great documentarian Errol Morris. Once you look past that rather confrontational name — doesn’t ‘interrotron’ sound like a third-degree tactic? — you can appreciate the effect that it has. It’s quite an ingenious filmmaking tactic, which allows the interviewer to maintain direct eye contact with their subject, but also enables the subject to talk directly into the camera, and by extension, at us.
Stutz has more directorial flair than you’d imagine. But of course, by the time it eventually arrives at that moment of truth both men had been pursuing for over an hour and a half — years, in real life — it’s the emotional journey that resonates more than any sort of technical achievement.
Director – Jonah Hill
Cast – Phil Stutz, Jonah Hill
Rating – 4/5