FROM OUR FILM AND THEATER CRITICS

A mixed chorus for Carell’s Dr. Bernard Feld

There are aspects of how therapy is depicted in this film that raise concerns.

By Mary Gregerson, PhD, Frederick Heide, and Jody Jessup

Following the footsteps of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, psychologists have been looking endlessly for a good psychologist portrayed in the multitude of current films and movies featuring mental health professionals (see Cannon, 2008; Gregerson, 2011). This season, a film portrayal of a mental health professional whom we would welcome as a colleague exists only partially in Steve Carell’s role of marriage counselor Dr. Bernard Feld in Hope Springs (Frankel, 2012). Yes, his eyes sparkle as he appreciates the idiosyncrasies of his patients’ bravura when denying hang-ups about sexuality. Yes, he gently holds steady through the flips and flops of his patients being reeled in toward increased marital and sexual intimacy. However, there are other aspects of how therapy is depicted in this film that raise concerns, as discussed below.

Psychotherapy and films have two intersecting fields of activity in media psychology: (a) healing through films and (b) healing in films. The first intersection focuses upon the selection of movies that have potential to educate, stimulate, and contour through social modeling (Bandura, 2004; Singhal, Cody, Roger, & Sabido, 2004). Can watching a film heal? In the 1980s at Harvard University, the late, great psychologist David McClelland (1989) identified “The Mother Teresa Effect” by demonstrating rises in immunological indices of health in Harvard University undergraduates after they viewed films of the late Mother Teresa ministering to the poor and those ill in the streets of Calcutta, India. After working as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. McClelland, this review’s senior author started cultivating clinical evidence for the positive repurposing of popular fictional films for therapeutic ends. This resulted recently in her editing the third book in the APA Division 46 Media Psychology Book Series, "The Cinematic Mirror for Psychology and Life Coaching," in which chapters selectively present films reflecting themes like relationships, families and adolescence.

The second intersection between film and psychotherapy in media psychology focuses on how popular fictional movies depict psychotherapy, and receives oversight from the APA Division 46 Media Psychology Media Watch Committee, which embraces the standard of excellence in the portrayal of mental health professionals. Some critics (e.g., Vogel, Gentile, & Kaplan, 2008) have noted that many portrayals of psychotherapy not only are not therapeutic intrinsically but after being viewed, this “bad portrayal” of therapy also discourages those in need from seeking mental health assistance. “Even among well-rated films, virtually all psychologist portrayals include some inaccurate or unethical actions,” Cannon (2008) has asserted. Good therapy depicted in films not only prospers the health of the profession but also fosters health and mental health for viewers — thus, our Diogenes quest for “a good movie psychologist.”

Professional reviewers as well as professional psychologists recognized the positive aspects of Carell’s Dr. Bernard Feld. In the month after the release more than 30 online reviews praised not only the artistic and popular merit of this movie, but also specifically mentioned the therapist portrayed by Steven Carell. Pickle (2012) noted, “Carell tackles perhaps the biggest challenge, playing Feld totally straight. The doctor is not without a sense of humor, but Carell incorporates that into the form of a sensitive, perceptive and caring professional.” Only one reviewer (Muldering, 2012, from the Catholic News Service) cautioned potential viewers that “the frankness with which director David Frankel’s film approaches marital intimacy veers, at times, into intrusiveness.”

Although we recognize the progress Hollywood has made toward excellent psychology in the portrayal of therapy and this therapist, we had definite reservations as well. To give these reservations context, a brief summary of the film may be helpful. Kay, a reticent Midwestern housewife (played brilliantly by Meryl Streep) and her accountant husband Arnold (an equally adept Tommy Lee Jones) are in a marriage that’s lost its fizz. They sleep in separate bedrooms and barely exchange words at breakfast. When Kay buys them each plane tickets to a week of “intensive couples counseling” with Dr. Feld in Maine, Arnold resists vociferously and barely boards the plane. Feld briefly acknowledges that Arnold doesn’t think his marriage needs work, but then rapidly assigns the couple a series of increasingly challenging behavioral exercises that include intimate touch, explicit discussion of sexual preferences, and eventually performing a sexual act in a movie theatre.

We realize that this is a comedy, and the film certainly works well at that level. However, we have at least three significant concerns about this portrayal. First, Feld never truly invites both members into the therapeutic work in a way that insures cooperation. Indeed, his speedy instigation of change without bringing Arnold on board seemingly portrays a caricature of couples’ counseling that could frighten certain viewers from seeking help. Second, throughout the film Feld is “doing” therapy to the clients rather than invoking their own “inner expert.” While this might be agreeable to those of us with a more systems-based or directive orientation, those who adopt a more solution-focused style in therapy will likely find this disquieting. Finally, the implication in the film that Feld is suggesting or supporting an illegal act is obviously deeply problematic.

In sum, we can offer a hymn of praise for Steve Carell as an actor. His understatement, warmth, nuance, and intelligence are a step forward in film portrayals of psychotherapists. On the other hand, how he depicts the therapist is offset to an unfortunate degree by how the script presents psychotherapy itself.

References

Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health Education and Behavior, 31(2), 143-164. DOI: 0.1177/1090198104263660

Cannon, B.J. (2008). In search of a good psychologist in a good movie: Persisting stereotypes. Pennsylvania Psychologist Quarterly, reprinted on the website Psychmovies.com. Accessed via Internet Explorer on 10/8/12 at https://sites.google.com/site/psychologyinfilm/articles/portrayal-of-psychologists-in-themovies.