What About Bob?
August 23, 2021
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
t the beginning of What About Bob? (1991), Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), a successful but aggravatingly full-of-himself psychotherapist, gets a new patient referred to him by a peer. Marvin, soon to depart for a month-long family vacation in Lake Winnipesaukee, hesitates at first. Then he decides to extend himself. What could it hurt to do an introductory interview before leaving, then
continue what had been started a few weeks from now?
Marvin, eventually to his chagrin, doesn’t know that his colleague hasn’t passed along the patient, Bob Wiley (Bill Murray), because he genuinely believes Marvin would be a better fit. (“He just needs someone brilliant!” the colleague lies.) It’s more that he simply can’t deal with Wiley anymore; he needs someone, essentially, to take over his shift. Wiley, we discover, is like a curse in human form. With his flyabout hair and the bright blue shirt that says “DON’T HASSLE ME I’M LOCAL” that he wears for most of the movie, he looks a little like a jinxed child’s doll brought to life, or a chaotic imp that just got out of bed. (In certain shots, he even reminded me of Frankenstein’s monster.) This recently divorced claustrophobic germaphobe is apparently incapable of doing anything besides getting bossed around by his phobias and the phobias he fears he could someday develop — a phobia of phobias. (He doesn’t seem to have a job to distract himself with.) Wiley can barely make it down a tight hallway without getting dizzy; he refuses to touch any object outside his cocoon-ish apartment without a protective Kleenex. His days, unpromisingly, begin with him frantically rubbing his temples, rocking back and forth, and chanting, “I feel good; I feel great; I feel wonderful,” to little avail. In Wiley’s world, affirmations are no different than stressors.
As Marvin will almost immediately learn, Wiley also has a habit of latching onto his latest therapist with ferocious desperation; that therapist we first see was probably in a long line of many fed-up others. Not long after Marvin and Wiley’s initial interview — which Marvin approaches with such disinterest that he winds up selling his new patient a $29.95 copy of his new book, Baby Steps,
with little material advice supplementing it — Wiley makes so many phone calls to Marvin in quick succession that he suggests a horror movie-style maniac stalker. Marvin understandably believes that he can effectively go off the grid once he settles at his nice vacation home. This is just an annoying interruption.
But though unambiguously a comedy, What About Bob? is a movie borne of nightmare logic. It almost entirely encompasses worst-case scenarios. Not one to say no to his instincts, Wiley soon resolves to track Marvin down and force him to talk when his calls start getting ignored. He announces his new presence at Lake Winnipesaukee by shouting his new psychotherapist’s name over and over again the minute he hops off the bus (the passengers cheer when he departs), which happens to park outside the minute mart in which the Marvin family is shopping. Marvin attempts, a little more frantically now, to get Wiley off his back. But the movie, directed by Frank Oz and written with dark mischievousness by Tom Schulman, rejoices in finding new ways to keep antagonizing its no-fun doctor. When Wiley introduces himself to Marvin’s wife (Julie Hagerty) and kids (Charlie Korsmo and Kathryn Erbe), their reaction is exactly what Marvin doesn’t want and didn’t think he’d get. They all really like him — they think he’s funny and sweet and sensitive, if a little neurotic — and once Wiley successfully invites himself to stay as an overnight guest, might even be caught saying they like Wiley better than the man of the house.
Marvin is image-obsessed to an alienating degree. We can tell as much before we’ve even met his family. Just look at the freakishly well-trimmed beard, the office statue sculpted in his likeness he decides to lug to the lake house, the way he treats his book above all like a branding opportunity. This self-admiring man must be annoying to be around. Marvin’s inability to really listen to Fay and daughter Anna wears them out (He only hears what he wants to.) And the son, Siggy, always clad in black because he is “mourning for my lost childhood,” is weighed down by Marvin’s endless projecting. (Marvin’s latest obsession: getting Siggy to do a perfect dive off their private dock.) It doesn’t seem like anybody in the family had really anticipated having fun on this vacation; they’re just, as usual, putting up with what their patriarch wants. But now that Wiley’s here, everyone who isn’t Dr. Marvin is so happy that they’re dancing and belting “Singin’ in the Rain” while doing the dishes, gaily tossing plates to each other like they were playing a game of catch. They have lighthearted afternoons on the water; dinners are chatty again. Inevitably, Siggy does a seamless dive like it’s no problem under Wiley’s guidance. And Anna is glad to have a quasi-paternal figure who takes what she has to say to heart. Fay hasn’t laughed so often in years. (And certainly no one appreciates her cooking like Wiley.)
For Marvin, the house becomes a torture chamber where no one seems to notice he’s being tortured. Everyone else thinks it’s charming, for instance, when Wiley lets off a series of overdramatic, affirmative mmmmms over dinner, while, to Marvin, it has a nails-on-chalkboard quality. The movie mostly encompasses gags like this one; this structure reaches its apex when a crew from Good Morning America comes to Lake Winnipesaukee to film a segment. Wiley not only crashes it but manages to steal the show. He looks funny and good-natured while Marvin seems profoundly uptight and nervous. What About Bob? is more consistently amusing than it is unreservedly funny; it struck me as forced when Marvin, toward the end of the movie, resorts to killing his patient from hell in a fiery explosion designed to look like an accident, in the style of a Columbo prologue. Though Murray and Dreyfuss’ performances are so sublimely in comic opposition — they’re like oil and water forced to go toe to toe in a blender, truly incapable of ever mixing — that it doesn’t matter if we’re not always in piles of laughter. There’s a general thrill in believing one lead actor could strangle the other. Murray and Dreyfuss make a wonderfully hostile odd couple; they have good chemistry in an antagonistic sense.
Sometimes the movie reminds you of a parable of some kind, where a demon or creature drops in from hell or some other otherworld to teach a man who is egotistical and unappreciative of what he has in life a lesson. A little Faustian, a little A Christmas Carol (1843). The farther we get into What About Bob?,
though, this moral pupil seems a little doomed already — like he is in a purgatory being punished for only really caring about his own success and image. Perhaps Marvin is already dead; the ending is, basically, Marvin is still in hell.
Murray was purportedly something of a Bob Wiley type himself on set: screaming at Dreyfuss inches from his face; throwing producer Laura Ziskin into a lake when he didn’t like where a disagreement was going. These anecdotes are, to be sure, disconcerting. They also remind me how easily a movie with this premise could go a little too far and render the whole thing unfunny. But Schulman’s script finds a steady middleground; its foundational darkness is tempered by a just-right dosage of absurdity. But one wishes Murray had limited his bad behavior to fiction: the movie, years after its release, has revealed itself an unsettling case of life imitating art that doesn’t enrich but devalue. B