The Good: Great acting, Interesting characters, Decent execution of a difficult plot concept
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Middle section (everything with Mary Steenburgen)
The Basics: Numb is a good little independent film that realistically portrays mental illness gets knocked off course in the middle by a dumb - and hardly entertaining - side plot.
It's a tough sell to make a film about characters who are mentally ill. I'm not talking mentally retarded, because there are plenty of movies with protagonists who suffer from learning disabilities and retardations (many a-list stars aim for them in order to get nominated for awards or to stretch their acting chops). And while there are a ton of movies about characters who are drug addicted, it's tough to find one where the protagonist legitimately suffers from a mental illness, like depression. In fact, the only two that come right to mind is the socially maladjusted protagonist in Punch-Drunk Love (reviewed here!) and the title character in Charlie Bartlett (reviewed here!). Far more often, the protagonists are just drug addicts and I'm to the point where movies involving drug culture simply bore me.
So, when I found Numb at my local library, I was actually pretty psyched. I've enjoyed Matthew Perry in many films and television shows, so when I saw that he was in a film with a mentally ill protagonist, I picked it right up off the shelf. And Perry is pretty wonderful in Numb. His costar, Lynn Collins, might steal the show, but Perry is excellent in the movie and it certainly cements the idea that Perry can do drama with the best of them.
Hudson takes a pretty extreme hit of weed which activates a depersonalization disorder within him. From that point on, he begins to feel like an observer outside his life as opposed to a participant in his own narrative. Desperate to get well, he begins seeing a psychologist and returns home to see his parents. Leaving when his uptight mother is unable to deal with his lack of ability to function, Hudson returns to Los Angeles where he is a writer to attempt more therapy and work on a new series with his writing partner, Tom.
When he returns, he meets Sara, an executive who is considering one of Tom and Hudson's projects and who once saw Hudson as a fish out of water at a Hollywood party. Sara pushes to be in Hudson's life and when she is there, he falls for her. However, between the medications he is put on and the symptoms of his depersonalization disorder (which includes shoplifting pens, despite the fact that he is quite well-off) Hudson finds himself unable to manage the relationship. He and Sara have a falling out and he begins to see Dr. Cheryl Blaine for help, though his heart remains with Sara . . .
Numb is one of those movies that gets so much right right out of the gate that when I started watching it, I thought I'd be as enthusiastically rating is as I did Waitress (reviewed here!), another small-budget film about difficult human relations. And Numb remained on the fast track to an astonishing review by me - if for no other reason than being clever enough to not use the title in the film, despite Hudson having to describe the disorder several times - until the fifty-eight minute mark. At that point, the film derails and while it recovers near the end, there is a half hour in there that is virtually unwatchable.
It is in that half-hour that Hudson has been left by Sara and Dr. Blaine enters the story. I've nothing against Mary Steenburgen and I'm not even sure that Dr. Blaine is an unrealistic or thoroughly unlikable character (she's just as screwed up as the rest of us, so it's hard not to like that!), but she doesn't fit this particular story. Dr. Blaine's little sidetrip into the narrative is pointless, distracting and offensive to those in the mental health community. Her presence in Numb transforms the realistic, informative, insightful and intelligently-presented story into a cheap, degrading, piece of entertainment that fails to entertain or do anything but revolt the viewer who was engaged for the first (almost) hour. Writer and director Harris Goldberg strikes out on that front, which is way too bad, considering he knew the perfect amount of time to take to establish Hudson and his disorder before bringing Sara into the story.
On that front, I enjoyed Goldberg's cutaways to Hudson's childhood. He clearly establishes the groundwork for Hudson's disorder by portraying his relationship with his mother as problematic as well as the contradictory reinforcement he received from his father. These might seem like distractions to some viewers, but it becomes a decent part of portraying Hudson's overall mental health history and it works very well as such. If anything, the problem with the cutaways to his childhood is that there were not enough of them. I'd love to see Goldberg remake the film with more of those scenes and the elimination of the Dr. Blaine arc.
Barring that, we are still left with a film that is worth recommending, if for no other reason than it tackles a rather difficult issue and deals with it thoroughly and (for the most part) maturely. The friendship between Tom and Hudson balances well against the isolation Hudson is mostly faced with and Numb utilizes voice-overs (something I've long stood against, especially last year when it seemed every television series was obsessed with doing them) judiciously and well.
Writer and director Harris Goldberg deserves a lot of credit for two things in Numb. The first is that Hudson is seen asking his doctors questions and he Goldberg often portrays the therapists as disinterested, unhelpful or focused on their own agendas. The same friend who will like that I was offended by Dr. Blaine's actions in Numb might be troubled by that last line of mine, so I'm going to explain that. Therapists tend to be very specialized and have areas of expertise and finding the right one is incredibly important; something Hudson acknowledges in Numb. Hudson is almost as much to blame for his treatment by Dr. Townsend as Townsend is for his apathy in dealing with Hudson; he and the protagonist are not a good fit, but Hudson keeps going to him anyway. The problem with Numb is it does not show the lengthy process of finding the right therapist and when Hudson finally hooks up with a specialist in his field, the story goes in a different and problematic way. But there is a realism to having therapists who are not used to extreme cases of mental illness having difficulty in dealing with patients who clearly need the services of a mental health professional.
The other thing that Goldberg does remarkably well is in the character of Sara. Sara enters Hudson's life and when they fall in love, there is a scene (sadly, only one) of Sara with Hudson at the psychiatrist. In that scene, Sara acts as Hudson's advocate, fighting for what he needs. This is an extraordinary and realistic scene that deserves mention because it is exactly the type of scene most movies like this are lacking. One of the truly comic aspects of American Medical Society is that the mentally ill are expected to be functional enough to accurately describe all of their symptoms (the tragedy of American Medical/Governmental Society, by the by, is expecting the mentally handicapped to manage their treatment and living conditions when the programs they are put in cannot be described to mentally able adults by the mentally able adults who run the programs in a way that they can be understood. The point of that last sentence, and this one and the next, is to illustrate the intrusive nature of the Dr. Blaine subplot in Numb. See how the paragraph was going along all well and nice, focusing on something wonderful involving Sara and then these other sentences just popped in . . . ?) and that is utterly unrealistic. Mentally ill people frequently need the aid of friends or loved ones to advocate for them as part of their treatment and Sara takes up that mantle in Numb perfectly.
Indeed, Sara is the bright spot in Numb that appears at just the right moment. Goldberg has Hudson wandering through his depersonalization disorder long enough to clearly establish how debilitating it is and Sara pops in the the precise timing in the film to keep the movie flowing and from becoming preachy or boring. It is easy to see - not just from her Hollywood beautiful looks - why Hudson's life is so energized by Sara's presence.
Sara is played by Lynn Collins, who I only realized I had seen by checking out the IMDB, who steals ever scene she is in. This is perfectly appropriate, though, as her character is intended to be a beacon of light in Hudson's life. Collins has an excellent sense of comic timing and a strong ability to play dramatic in a very demanding way opposite Matthew Perry's Hudson. Unlike her unmemorable role as Mona in The Lake House (reviewed here!), Collins explodes with talent in Numb in a way that makes me eager to see her in the new Wolverine film!
But it is Matthew Perry who is charged with carrying most of Numb and he certainly does not disappoint. Perry has a strong sensibility as an actor do play subtle and dramatic and if one had not seen him in other roles before this, this would easily convince the viewer that he can do understated and impressive. Perry never makes the viewer feel like they are watching Matthew Perry; from the moment he appears on screen, he is the terribly depressed Hudson and that serves the story perfectly. In fact, there is no higher compliment for an actor, I believe. Indeed, Perry was so convincing as Hudson that when Sara calls him on his stealing and Hudson returns the pen he stole and I sat there saying "Okay, he didn't really return it," Perry's performance convinced me otherwise.
On DVD, there is a commentary track, a featurette and a slew of previews for other artsy, underviewed films like Numb. There are no deleted scenes and the commentary track does not justify Blaine's place in the movie, so it's average at best on the bonus features.
Ultimately, Numb is a truly wonderful romantic comedy and drama for 2/3 of the film with a chunk taken out of the latter half. But, seeing as it's in there, Numb suffers. And for those who can stomach a great movie about human suffering, Numb becomes one of the best to see.
For other works with Kevin Pollak, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Big Year
The Whole Ten Yards
The Wedding Planner
The Whole Nine Yards
The Usual Suspects
For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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