Director: Harris Goldberg (USA – 2007)
Los Angeles, the present. Troubled screenwriter Hudson Milbank visits his psychiatrist and is diagnosed with ‘depersonalization’ disorder which leaves him feeling disconnected from society. At a pitch meeting he encounters attractive executive Sarah and falls for her. They go on a date, and she invites him back to her apartment. They kiss, but Hudson panics and leaves. On the following date, Sarah berates him for stealing a pen from a supermarket. He visits a new psychiatrist who prescribes him with anti-psychotic medication. After falling asleep in the bathroom, Sarah becomes suspicious. Hudson confesses his illness and proposes to her. She declines. Hudson continues to shop-lift. Sarah leaves him. Hudson visits cognitive behaviourist, Cheryl, whom he invites back to his apartment. They have sex. Cheryl soon becomes infatuated with him. Hudson books into a treatment centre. Later, he goes looking for Sarah. Her neighbour informs him that she has left for the airport. He arrives at the terminal and tells Sarah he loves her. She walks away. Hudson attempts an overdose, but is interrupted by a phone call from his mother, who tells him his father has died. Hudson attends the funeral and argues with his family. Back home, he is caught stealing a pair of trainers and put in a cell with a homeless man. Their conversation triggers an epiphany in Hudson and inspires a movie pitch. He cancels his psychotherapy and is reconciled with Sara.
High in concept, but sunk by its romcom trappings, Numb is a tiresomely shallow portrayal of mental illness and relationships. Written by Harris Goldberg (who also directs), much of the script was supposedly born out of his own experience as a struggling screenwriter suffering from ‘depersonalization,’ an illness he describes in the press notes as ‘the feeling that everything around me appeared unreal, as if living in some kind of hellish, dreamlike state.’
Matthew Perry is aptly cast as pill-popping, angst-ridden writer, Hudson. Plagued with an abundance of ‘issues’ that apparently stem from his relationship with his mother – the spectre of Chandler Bing is never far away- Hudson seeks help from a string of psychotherapists. Numbed to reality, he searches recklessly for stimulation; finding distraction through shop-lifting, lesbian aerobics classes and watching hours of the golf channel. When he falls for company executive, Sarah (Lynn Collins), Hudson is determined to straighten out, but his rampant kleptomania and bouts of depression prove too much for her, and she promptly leaves him. The rest of the film hinges on Hudson ’s search for a cure and his quest to get Sarah back.
Goldberg’s unabashed contempt for therapy is glaringly evident. At times his observations of mental illness are so vacuous as to border on the offensive, and the film touches with farcical levity on issues such as sexual insecurity and prescription-drug dependence. Moreover, Perry’s sullen underplaying serves only to detach the viewer from Hudson ’s emotional journey, while the strained relationship with his mother-apparently the catalyst to all his problems- is barely developed. Of the supporting cast, Collins makes the best of a bad script and turns in a decent performance as Hudson’s wilful, doe-eyed, love interest, Sarah. And Mary Steenburgen gets the biggest laughs as Hudson ’s unhinged nymphomaniac therapist Cheryl.
Towards the final reel, Hudson ’s pragmatic father tells him to simply “pull his socks up.” It’s advice that Hudson takes to heart before cancelling his therapy- neatly summarizing the film’s unwavering refusal to tackle the darker material at hand.
Sight & Sound – Vol 18 Issue 7 – July 2008 – Page 68