What About Bob?
May 17, 1991
If we agree with director Bill Duke that A RAGE IN HARLEM is “no god damn comedy,” then we have now come to Summer 1991’s first actually funny comedy. WHAT ABOUT BOB? is also the first ’91 release we’ve come to that seems arguably too problematicTM to be made now, at least quite like this.
You see, Bill Murray (following SCROOGED, GHOSTBUSTERS II and QUICK CHANGE) plays a person with multiple debilitating psychological disorders who follows his psychiatrist to his vacation home and, as they say, drives him crazy. Of course this is uncomfortable because we know so many horror stories of stalkers – troubled people crossing boundaries with results that are less hilarious and more tragic. But what really feels of-a-different-time is just how much poor Bob Wiley’s struggles are played for laughs. As he squirms and winces while struggling just to step outside of his apartment or touch a doorknob or get on an elevator, the score by Miles Goodman (TEEN WOLF, K-9) makes sure we know that it’s cute and funny. That seems kind of mean, or just off base when I think about how much Bob reminds me of a much less lovable Bob I dealt with for years at my day job.
I say all this, but I also think this is a funny movie, and part of what makes it funny is the unlikelihood of making that work. I don’t think of Frank Oz as a precise director, but he and the screenplay by Tom Schulman (THE GLADIATOR, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS), with story credit given to Alvin Sargent (GAMBIT, PAPER MOON, STRAIGHT TIME, ORDINARY PEOPLE) & producer Laura Ziskin, somehow figured out the exact right angle to come at it from.
Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss a little after ALWAYS and POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE) doesn’t seem like a total piece of shit at first, but he’s definitely pretty full of himself. That’s why he doesn’t think much of it when a colleague (Roger Bowen, ZAPPED!) asks him to take on one of his patients. Of course he thinks he can handle him. He’s Dr.Leo Marvin! But we see the other side of the phone call and realize this other guy is quitting the business specifically to escape Bob Wiley. That could be a bad sign. (It’s kind of the same joke as PROBLEM CHILD, where all the nuns celebrate after the kid leaves with his new parents.)
No sooner does Dr. Marvin agree to take this referral than he learns that Bob has already called several times and is in the lobby. No problem. He gives Bob an introductory interview and a book he thinks might help – it just happens to be his own newly published wannabe pop-psychology sensation Baby Steps – and then he has him schedule another appointment in a month, when he’ll be back from his vacation.
Of course that doesn’t sit well with Bob, who finds ways to call Dr. Marvin at his house at Lake Winnipesaukee, and schemes to find out its location by impersonating a police detective and telling the office operator that one Bob Wiley, who called earlier, committed suicide after not getting through to Dr. Marvin.
In that scene it feels like the movie has doomed itself by going too dark and uncomfortable, but it’s actually one of the keys to its success. In the next scene Dr. Marvin receives the news about Bob’s supposed death, which he relays solemnly to his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty, using the same wide-eyed sweetness as in AIRPLANE!). And then he says, “Oh well. Let’s not let it spoil our vacation.”
That right there is our authorization to enjoy the doctor’s misery, and it’s co-signed by Mr. and Mrs. Guttman (Tom Aldredge [BRENDA STARR] and Susan Willis), local diner owners who are happy to doxx Dr. Marvin to Bob because he was the asshole who swooped in and bought their dream home to use just for vacations. A funny running gag is that the Guttmans always seem to be nearby in a canoe at perfect moments to cheer on Bob or give Dr. Marvin a look of fiery hatred.
The other secret is that Murray plays an inversion of his usual comic persona. Many of his characters, including Dr. Jack Ghostbuster in the hit film MEN’S GHOSTBUSTERS, are cocky assholes with an aura of coolness that makes us like them anyway. But Bob is genuinely an innocent sweetheart who is as far from being cool or cocky as scientifically possible. So we can laugh at him walking around excitedly announcing his “baby steps” to anyone nearby or yelling “I sailed!” after successfully riding a sailboat by being tied to the mast, and we feel like we’re rooting for him rather than belittling him.
Maybe that’s why this movie can have such a queasy-uncomfortable premise without scaring off normal people the way, say, THE CABLE GUY did. It’s very much a mainstream crowdpleaser kind of comedy that I remember quoting all the time without feeling like it was some cool insider thing like many of my favorites. For some reason it always cracked me up when he called the Marvins “the fam,” so I used that term for years and was thrown off when it coincidentally became an actual thing that people say.
The combination of arrogant victim and well-meaning aggressor makes for a similar dynamic to that episode of The Simpsons about Frank Grimes, the one guy to respond to Homer Simpson like a normal person would. He is absolutely, unequivocally correct to be furious about everything Homer does and the way everyone else fails to react to it. You can identify with that frustration, but also know that he’s kind of an asshole, and the more aggravated he gets the funnier it becomes.
Bob is, of course, way, way, way, way, way out of line, and Dr. Marvin rightfully puts his foot down. In fact he’s too nice to him – he gives in and talks to him a little, offering the ridiculous advice to “give yourself a vacation from your problems,” which inspires Bob to rent a place nearby and basically join the doctor on his vacation. Which maybe wouldn’t be that much of a bother if the rest of the Marvin family weren’t so improbably charmed by Bob. The doctor’s teenage daughter Ann (Kathryn Erbe from some show called Chicken Soup) is the one who takes him sailing, and his goth-adjacent son Siggy (Charlie Korsmo from DICK TRACY) goes from being afraid of diving off the pier to trying to show Bob how to do it.
These are the fake nice things an evil stalker would do in a thriller to fuck with Dr. Marvin, but Bob is being genuine and has no idea he’s doing anything wrong. It’s also something that another movie might spin into a cloying message about the doctor learning valuable lessons from his patient. He recognizes some of his failures as a father and then sees this weirdo connect with his kids in ways that he hasn’t been able to. Mercifully, it’s played way more for laughs than warmth. When Dr. Marvin sees Siggy’s triumphant dive he doesn’t show Bob that he’s grateful for the breakthrough – he frantically tells him, “Okay, I’ll take it from here!” And the way the story ends up it’s safe to say that Leo doesn’t learn any valuable lessons from Bob.
I think we can all recognize this as a really funny performance by Murray, but maybe we take for granted how great Dreyfuss is. He never seems too broad because it’s such a modulated performance. He starts out slightly dickish but okay, and very slowly boils over to a climactic state of completely-unhinged-ness, as his family look at him in disbelief, because this is Bob! How could he be so mad about Bob?
But also there’s just some straight up great shtick, like the scene where he tries out different ways to pose in front of the fireplace for an impending Good Morning America interview.
Filmatistically it’s all very normal and competent, nothing about it stands out, but I want to note that it has the cinematographer of GOODFELLAS (Michael Ballhaus) and the editor of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Anne V. Coates). It’s Oz’s fifth movie as a director, but of course the first three were THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982), THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN (1984) and the transitional LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986). I’m not saying those don’t count – honestly I consider normal comedies with humans saying lines to each other in regular settings to be a lesser art form – I’m just saying he was kind of new to this type of movie. There was DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) and then this.
The Richard Dreyfuss phenomenon is interesting to me. This is a guy I don’t feel like gets a whole lot of discussion these days, and who I doubt could be identified by many movie fans in their twenties. Possibly thirties. He’s so different in personality, voice and physical characteristics from anyone who would be a major leading man in the past, say, 20 years, but when I was growing up he was a huge marquee name. Obviously he starred in the mother of all summer blockbusters, JAWS, and followed it up with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s he was just one of those name brands who could get a movie made. Richard Dreyfuss movies continued to be a thing for the rest of the decade, with ANOTHER STAKEOUT (1993), MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS (1995) and KRIPPENDORF’S TRIBE (1998) being some of his higher profile starring roles.
Murray was bigger, though, and has managed to stay relevant to this day. He directly followed WHAT ABOUT BOB? with one of his very best movies, GROUNDHOUG DAY (1993). And though he had a few questionable comedy vehicles coming up (LARGER THAN LIFE , THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE ) he was on the verge of redefining himself with unforgettable supporting roles in ED WOOD (1994), WILD THINGS (1998) and RUSHMORE (1998). At the time it seemed like an interesting late-career switch-up, but guess what? The Wes Anderson/Sofia Copolla/Jim Jarmusch section of his career has already been longer than the period from MEATBALLS to SPACE JAM. We’re old, guys!
Erbe was later in D2: THE MIGHTY DUCKS (1994), which I assume people a little younger than me know her from. But she immediately followed that with a bunch of gritty stuff: THE ADDICTION (1995), KISS OF DEATH (1995), a 1997 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, STIR OF ECHOES (1999), and then she was on Oz. Korsmo only did a couple more movies, with one huge child actor role (HOOK ) and one teen movie (CAN’T HARDLY WAIT ). Then he got a physics degree from MIT and a law one from Yale Law School and now teaches corporate law and finance in Cleveland. But he did appear in that weird movie CHAINED FOR LIFE in 2019 (his first in more than twenty years).
Screenwriter Schulman’s next movie was the okay John McTiernan adventure MEDICINE MAN, but most of his subsequent work was on poorly received comedies (8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG, HOLY MAN, WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT). Story provider Sargent – a veteran whose first credit was a 1956 episode of Chevron Hall of Stars – had a surprising turn in the final stretch of his career. His last three films were SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN 3 and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (with Ziskin as producer).
The next film by Oz (the director, not the show) was HOUSESITTER (1992) with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. It has always seemed kind of disappointing to me that he directs normal middle-of-the-road comedies and never went back to the imaginative stuff except for the much-derided THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD (which I kind of liked when I did my Summer of 1995 retrospective). But I know many people love BOWFINGER, and now he has that documentary about the magician or whatever. And he played Yoda again. I don’t know. He honestly seems like a great person. I don’t get to choose what kind of movies he makes. He can do what he wants.
Like ONE GOOD COP, WHAT ABOUT BOB? was produced by Touchstone Pictures. It opened at #1, and ultimately became Disney’s highest grossing live action movie of the year, ranking fifteenth at the year’s box office, right above KINDERGARTEN COP.
Full disclosure: KINDERGARTEN COP made triple what this did, it’s just that it was released on December 22nd, and made it to #16 of ’91 in just that one week. So it earned its DTV sequel starring Dolph Lundgren, but I think WHAT ABOUT BOB? deserves one too. I lean toward Dolph playing the patient, but I could go either way.
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Cultural references: So far we’re not seeing too much 1991-specific pop culture in these movies. The references are to The Brady Bunch (shown on a TV) and Neil Diamond (Bob claims to have divorced his wife because she liked him). There is a Gameboy in it, though.