Numb (2007), starring Matthew Perry and Lynn Collins.
Directed by Harris Goldberg
PsychCritiques: A review by Thomas Scheff
Current film commentary on the treatment of mental illness is
seldom melodramatic as it was in the days of snake pit movies. Now it usually
comes in the form of romantic comedies. Numb almost fits this mold. One
main theme is romance, but there are only a few laughs.
The story begins with the other main theme, the intense
suffering of the protagonist, Hudson, who is caught in the grip of
“depersonalization.” He doesn’t feel himself as real, nor the world around him
either. He feels lost in a queasy dream. He spends almost all of his days and
nights with TV, watching endless movie reruns and golf tournaments. For good
measure, he is also a kleptomaniac, because the adrenalin wakens him out of his
His fog is interrupted when he notices a woman, Sarah, who
also notices him. Their growing but intermittent relationship is believable and
touching. Sarah seems to sense Hudson’s potential. She is intelligent,
romantic, and not frightened away by his main symptoms. But his stealing and
lying about it are too much; it causes her to leave him for much of the story.
Most of the film is devoted to Hudson’s attempt to get help
from mental health professionals. This part is not particularly funny or
believable, even though it is said to be based on the director/scriptwriter’s
own experience. Whatever that experience was, it clearly left a residue of
Hudson’s first attempt at treatment, many costly sessions
with a psychoanalyst, leads nowhere. Not content just to talk, the therapist
also prescribes a heavily sedating psychotropic drug. The last session turns
ugly: the doctor obviously falls asleep. When Hudson protests, he denies.
Hudson walks out, perhaps because he didn’t own up. The therapist had seemed
sympathetic, but it was only a pose.
The second attempt is with a psychiatrist who is little more
than a drug pusher. He shows virtually no interest in the patient’s symptoms or
experience; the questions he asks are all formulaic and irrelevant. He is
totally unsympathetic, providing only a torrent of anti-psychotic drugs that
help not at all.
Fair enough, so far. But the third attempt is with a
cognitive psychologist who turns out to be off the wall, more unhinged than her
patient. Since she hasn’t had sex in seven years, they go to bed. She also
shouts at him in public settings: many obvious boundary violations pile
up. This character is not so much a real
person as a stereotype. The therapist, as overplayed by Mary Steenbergen,
seemed at first to be not only sympathetic, but helpful. Once again, only a
Part of the reason for the heavy handed attack on mental
health professionals is that like most clients, the film is naïve about the
problem. Most potential clients think that mental health is a cut and dried
affair, with all professionals alike. But these problems, like human beings,
are extremely complex. For that reason, clients need to shop around not just
for price, but for talent and goodness of fit. Often one session or even a
phone chat will tell. Hudson was not a savvy client.
The film tries to make the point that Hudson’s redemption
begins when he takes steps to establish close relationships. Most of his life
he seems to have felt accepted only by one person, his father, and utterly
rejected by both his mother and his brother. A crisis occurs when his father
dies. After the funeral, Hudson begins the long road of patching up matters
with his mother and brother, and to establish new relationships, even with
strangers. Most important, he succeeds in getting Sarah to come back to him.
Even if actually connected to only one person, he is no longer alone in the
universe. As E. M. Forster wrote, “Only connect.”
There are other films that are critical of professional
psychotherapy, but more evenhanded, or at least more subtle or creative.
Earlier attempts like Mumford and A Couch in New York explore the
subversive possibility that a gifted layperson may do a better job as
psychotherapist than a professional.
The recent film Lars and the Real Girl, a real gem,
has it both ways. The basic idea is that what a severely mentally ill person
needs most is a social treatment that restores his relationship with a whole
community: it takes a village. But in this story it is a professional
psychologist/physician who provides effective individual psychotherapy in the
guise of friendly chats, and also conceives of the social treatment plan. What
seems to be needed is a balance between the two worlds.
A Couch in New York. 1996. Chantal Akerman, Director
Mumford. 1999. Lawrence Kasdan, Director.
Lars and the Real Girl. 2007. Craig Gillespie,