Numb (2007), Matthew Perry and Lyn Collins



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 stupor.


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 anger.


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 pose.


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, Director