Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Heath Holland On...What About Bob?

by Heath Holland
Is this Bill Murray’s most charming performance?

Sometimes a movie can be so well-known that it becomes easy to take for granted. Such is the case with 1991’s What About Bob?, directed by Frank “Don’t Call Me Fozzy” Oz. It’s a movie that was a staple of the comedy section in every single video store in America during the nineties and still seems to always be on both cable TV and those weird broadcast channels that play movies that no one wants to watch anymore. Meanwhile Bill Murray has achieved full-blown legend status in recent years and become an icon and a brand for a generation who is quick to sing his praises as both a comedic and a dramatic actor. Fans are quick to recite their list of favorites, rattling of Ghostbusters, Scrooged and Groundhog Day as comedy classics and Rushmore and Lost in Translation as examples of how deep Murray’s talent runs. But What About Bob?

In Frank Oz’s comedy film, Bill Murray plays Bob Wiley, a psychiatrist’s worst nightmare. He’s a reclusive hypochondriac living in New York who has an obsessive-compulsive relationship with every therapist he’s ever seen. Enter Richard Dreyfuss as Dr. Leo Marvin, an egotistical shrink who inherits Bob as a client from a colleague who is quitting the business to escape Bob’s attention. Dr. Marvin is about to go on vacation with his family; his wife is played by Julie Hagerty (Airplane), and his two kids are played by Charlie Korsmo (Dick Tracy, Hook) and Kathryn Erbe (D2: The Mighty Ducks). They’re headed to a rustic lakeside spot in New England, and Bob follows, breaking all client/patient boundaries in the process. As Bob endears himself to Dr. Marvin’s family, Dr. Marvin slowly unravels.
I asked a question at the top, wondering if this is Bill Murray’s most charming performance. It’s a bold question because Murray’s resume is filled with likable roles, laugh-out-loud funny performances, and deeply human characters. Murray is also the king of deadpan, his trademark brand of acerbic sarcasm manifesting itself in just about everything he’s ever done. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen him deliver a performance as sweet, naïve, innocent, and lovable as he does in What About Bob?. It’s a unique item in his filmography, and a vibe that I wish he’d have returned to a little more often.

What makes the performance so special to me is Murray’s complete lack of guile. Murray frequently plays a worldly, winking persona. His humor can be dry as toast or broad and silly, but there’s always a hint of that sly self-awareness at best and arrogance at worst. In a lot of ways the performance in What About Bob is a very un-Murray performance, but at the same time it’s VERY Murray. Honestly, watching it again recently, I discovered that it might be my favorite comedic performance from him, which is really saying something. Part of it comes from the simple fact that I can’t recall another movie where he smiles so much. And it’s not a sly smile, but a warm, trusting smile. He’s just so likable.

Another important part of the formula is that Richard Dreyfuss plays an incredible straight man, posturing himself as the establishment while slowly becoming more insane himself as he’s driven to the end of his wits. I have to confess something: I’ve never been much of a Richard Dreyfuss fan. I know a lot of his roles are characters who are a little bit neurotic and a little bit manic, and he often has gotten on my nerves in ways that I don’t think are intentional. But I’ve kind of come around on him in the last few years and now recognize him as being really good at a particular thing. That thing is on display in What About Bob?, and he seems like he’s having a really good time being a total a-hole. Maybe that’s what he’s best at anyway: being a lovable a-hole.
While I’m singing the praises of What About Bob, I must point out that some really weird choices have been made that don’t work for the movie, chief among them being the bizarre score from Miles Goodman. It’s a weird accompaniment that I think belongs more in a cartoon than a feature. Goodman is not a bad composer; I think he’s done good work in movies like Teen Wolf (a midnight favorite of mine) and About Last Night, but his score just doesn’t work for me in this movie. It’s too cutesy and draws far too much attention to itself. It’s a fantastical choice for a movie that doesn’t have any magic realism whatsoever and plays things kind of dark.

That brings us to Frank Oz. I like Frank Oz as a director because there’s that dark side to his work which is in stark contrast to the cuteness he’s contributed to pop culture with The Muppets (not that The Muppets don’t have a dark side, because they do). But Frank Oz seems very comfortable exploring morbid territory in his own films and isn’t afraid to mix death and comedy together. And yet there’s also a sweetness that co-exists alongside the morbidity, and that’s what makes Oz’s work stand out in a movie market where things are becoming more and more homogenized and safe. It’s strange, because his films often seem workman-like in their composition, but there is still a small touch of authorial voice. What About Bob is not a particularly well-directed film; there’s no ostentatious cinematography and there’s little sign of a signature style. And yet, it seems consistent with his other film work. Something else that makes his work appealing to me is that he seems to find the bizarre in the mundane. The subject of this movie is nothing particularly groundbreaking: we have a therapist, a patient, and a situation gone wrong. How many movies have been made about this? Yet Oz makes it feel engaging and interesting because it’s a little off.
I’ve had a challenging relationship with What About Bob? in the past. My mom has a master’s degree in psychology and was a practicing therapist and counselor for a large portion of my teen years. This was one of her favorite movies because of the patient/therapist comedy, and she quoted it a lot around the house. Lots of families argue with each other and lose their temper, but things are pretty different when your mother is a practicing psychologist. You get asked how something makes you feel every time there is a conflict and everything has to be discussed until the real source of the conflict can be discovered. Looking back on it now, it seems kind of peaceful and progressive, but I really disliked how every argument led to a one-hour conversation that required me to dig out my soul. Inevitably, I came to associate What About Bob? with the same psychological rhetoric that really got under my skin at the time. As it turns out, revisiting it again long after those tumultuous years reveals that it’s actually still really funny and stands up incredibly well. This is especially true when you consider the endearing nature of Bill Murray’s performance as a guy who is clearly crazy, but all the more lovable for it.

I don’t know how often I will revisit this movie in the future. While it’s a darkly comic experience that I find to be very entertaining, it’s also forever linked to some baggage that I’d rather leave in the past. At the same time, Frank Oz balances the laughter and the darkness perfectly, and Bill Murray gives a great performance by portraying a vulnerable character that has complete faith in something larger than him. That’s a real rarity for the actor, and when placed in direct contrast to Richard Dreyfuss’s comic rage, I think this becomes a real gem for fans of Bill Murray.


  1. Reading your article FORCED me to watch What About Bob? last night - hadn't seen it in...decades? Fuck me! But yeah, loved it in my tweens (ugh) and might not have thought about it again were it not for your lovely little essay. It's not a perfect movie, but I think I was able to watch it without nostalgia blinders and I thought it was really good. Dreyfuss is almost too perfect for the part - he was born to play an arrogant psycholodick and is such a perfect counterpart to what really is a sweet performance by Murray. I mean he's so annoying but you never doubt that people - especially Leo Marvin's family - would kinda love him. Particularly endearing are scenes with just him and the kids where you really get a sense of him (the person as opposed to the character) trying to make them comfortable and give them an opportunity to shine.

    Sure maybe all the jokes don't land as hard as they did when I was 11 (I remember thinking the "I want some peace and quiet in here! I'll be quiet. I'll be peace!" scene was genius) but it's fun and sweet and a little dark and I still love it!

    Thanks for the reminder Heath!

    1. Glad to hear I'm not the only one viewing this with fresh eyes. I love the scene where the doctor and his wife are trying to wake him up by shaking him and yelling in his ear. He only wakes up when his alarm goes off, then he sits up and gives them the warmest smile. Such a throwaway joke that ends up being so sweet.

  2. I have fond memories of this film, the whole teaching his son to swim thing and the Baby steps stuff

    Heartwarming is a good word for this film