Imagine a scenario such as this: a patient visits their psychiatrist faithfully, week after week, sometimes several times a week. They lay their heart and soul, and sometimes a little more information than any reasonable person needs to know, into the experienced hands of a doctor who is there to help them through life's little impediments that colour their worlds. Imagine that your psychiatrist decides suddenly (at least in your mind!) to 'desert' you and take a vacation. What is one to do at this unwelcome news? Stand and fight the demons that stalk you, fall to pieces, slip over the dark edge of the abyss? NO! You take yourself to the place where your doctor has gone and make, in his estimation at least, a living hell on earth for him, from which there is no apparent escape.
Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) is such a patient. He has already run through a laundry list of analysts and has now been recommended to Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) by an associate, who, strangely enough, is 'getting out of the business.' Bob is a stir-fry concoction of multi-phobias that tend to disrupt his everyday existence, and he ekes out a minor existence that encompasses the services of others who are supposed to 'help' him through them. Dr. Marvin interviews Bob and is willing and ready to show him the door, armed with a copy of his new book, Baby Steps, because of his need to get away on his vacation. What he doesn't realize is that he is unwittingly setting the stage for a disaster of his own making.
Wiley manages to track Leo down in the wilds of New Hampshire, to a small resort area, where Marvin's family has a summer place. He needs Leo's help and overcomes, with duress, several of his phobias to reconnect with the person who has helped make it possible for him to withdraw from his shell. Of course, Bob is extremely grateful and wants to show said gratitude. What follows is a comedy of errors, at least on Leo's part, and a fun time is to be had be all concerned, including the audience.
Bill Murray, with his hangdog expression, his drooping lower lip that bespeaks an air of 'oops' about it and the general at ease, ragdoll nature of his body, are a bold accompaniment to Dreyfuss's starched, staid, pompous egotist psychiatrist, who rues the day he ever met Bob. There is an absolute feeling of rooting for Bob, the underdog, who manages to bewitch Leo's family, Fay (Julie Hagerty), Anna (Kathryn Erbe) and Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo); the last two being named after Freud and his daughter, Anna. Bob's connection with them is to play one neurotic off another and see the end result. You see, Leo's family is not a family in the sense of the word, but more like patients of his who are expected to tow a mighty line of his making. In this context, Leo is a Jack of all trades and master of none.
Murray is perfect for this role and it fits him like a manicured kid glove. The innocence he reflects in the face of both friendliness from others and the animosity projected by Leo, go together like love and marriage, or as the song says, like a horse and carriage. One would not be complete without the other. His pacing of body mannerisms and the delivery of his lines make one wait with utter enthusiasm for whatever witticism will fall from his lips. Our reward? Laughter and ready smiles all around.
Richard Dreyfuss is not normally an actor that I care for, but this role was heaven sent. Prickly, spiked, and by the book are ready monikers that have been fashioned for him, and I know of no other actor who could submit, for our approval, the perfect representation of psychiatrists we love to hate... but need all the same. It's a double edged sword, but one that tickles us all the same.
Bob and Leo's verbal exchanges are like watching a fast paced tennis match, with lobs generating the slow burns (reminiscent of actor Edgar Kennedy) every so often. The supreme moment happens when Good Morning America comes to interview Marvin about his book, Baby Steps, and what he had envisioned as his moment, comes crashing down as he freezes up. Bob, though, is there to carry the torch. This scene is priceless.
Director Frank Oz parlays a simple premise into a tale chock full of laughter and truth telling. The screenplay by Tom Schulman is never meant to patronize analysts or their patients, but rather to showcase things that could or might happen in an endearing and humourous fashion.
What About Bob? is a tiny jewel of a classic, that never quite received a huge buildup as is sometimes wont to happen. Like that rare gem, though, we treasure it all the more for the 'feel good' attitude that it imparts to us via laughter and a fun time to be had be all concerned, and hold it all the more to our hearts and funnybones. Of course, we can look upon this film and Bob as the ultimate revenge upon therapists who sometimes hold themselves on a virtual pedestal of their own creation; who feel they are legends in their own minds. Who really needs the therapy; the patient or the doctor? What would Freud say?
Power be to Bob! Long live the King of Comedy and his worthy court!