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MMYIF: What About Bob?

My Misspent Youth In Films...

What About Bob?
Directed by: Frank Oz
Starring: Billy Murray, Richard Dreyfuss, Julie Hagerty
Released: August 17, 1991

A successful psychotherapist loses his mind after one of his most dependent patients, an obsessive-compulsive neurotic, tracks him down during his family vacation.

What I Thought Then

Peak Bill Murray. This was one the whole family rewatched, and we loved it. "I'll be peace" was referenced often in our house.

What I Think Now

There are a lot of different lenses through which you can appreciate this movie, and my level of appreciation fluctuates over the course of the film as these various lenses become apparent. On the one hand, it has a lot of its DNA in the "slobs vs snobs" genre of comedy that Murray cut his teeth on, a genre that's pretty passé these days and not one that I particularly enjoy. On the other hand, it's kind of "the odd couple, but with therapy" and that's fun. On yet another hand, there's a fair amount of cringe humor, which I really don't like, and Bob's actions are wildly inappropriate despite him being the ostensible hero. And on yet a--what are we on, fourth?--fourth hand, Murray's sheer force of comic personality overrides a lot of other objections. He's just fun to watch. All of that said, the interpretation that I eventually landed on that made it congeal for me is not any of these. I like this movie. Why? Because it is secretly a tragedy. It is tragic in structure, just not in execution. However funny it might be, at its heart it's a chronicle of the downfall of its hero, Dr. Leo Marvin. So that's how we're framing this.

Shortly before taking a month-long vacation to celebrate the release of his new book, Baby Steps, psychiatrist Leo Marvin accepts a new patient, one Bob Wiley, and makes plans to begin seeing him regularly after he gets back. But Bob can't wait. His problems--which are nebulously defined but seem to be a combination of loneliness, paranoia, and hangups over his ex-wife--are debilitating and Bob therefore uses a combination of increasingly desperate tactics to get in touch with Leo, finally stalking him at his vacation house. Once there, Bob ingratiates himself with Leo's family. As it turns out, Leo's not much of a father figure. He struggles to connect with his children, failing often to even hear their perspective. Bob, on the other hand, is fun and personable and in a state of arrested development himself, allowing him to gel easily with Leo's family. He even inadvertently helps them sort through their problems while he's working on his own. As such, he begins to usurp Leo as the paternal figure of the family. Sensing that he is being replaced, Leo lashes back, eventually attempting to commit Bob to a mental institution and then ultimately trying to murder him. But since Leo is unwilling to confront his own shortcoming and can only attack his antagonist, he never grows, never reconciles, and is thwarted. His attempts to wrest his family back from Bob backfire, and he loses his home--the symbol of his vacation, his family, and his success--in a catastrophic explosion. The loss leaves him in a catatonic state. Hijinks ensue throughout.

Okay, but like, is it funny? Well, your mileage may vary. The whole premise of the movie hinges on Bob engaging in some pretty gross violations of privacy, and for some people that's a barrier to making him likable. Similarly, the conceit of the "slobs v snobs" genre is that having wealth automatically makes one a target worthy of tearing down. Leo isn't a bad guy, but he gets shat on a lot, which is honestly why I like the tragic framing. It's a lot easier to stomach Leo's steady--and then precipitous--decline if you see him as the hero falling from grace rather than Bob as the hero doling out comeuppances. And in that regard, yeah I found it funny, due in large part to the caliber of the performances. Murray plays Bob as a naif rather than a man-child, allowing him to be endearing even as he's undermining Leo's entire life. One gets the impression that Bob doesn't need a therapist as much as he needs a friend or two. Dreyfuss, meanwhile, starts out with a grounded, almost wry take on Leo, but he gets progressively more manic and unhinged as the story develops. There's also some fantastic supporting talent. Julie Hagerty as Leo's wife Fay is low-key hilarious, and their children, played by Kathryn Erbe and Charlie Korsmo, are unique and compelling presences. But what I think I love most about this movie is the face acting. I'm a sucker for good face acting. There's a moment where Leo apologizes to Bob and it's very half-ass and yet Bob graciously accepts it, and it all plays out without dialog. It kills me. Or there's the dinner scene where Bob is "mmmmm"-ing over how good the food is while Leo gets steadily angrier and Fay is trying to not crack up. Good stuff.

In terms of things that might have aged poorly? Eh, there's not much to tell. The film's portrayal of mental illness isn't exactly realistic, but it isn't mean-spirited either. We aren't here to laugh at Bob because he has problems. We're here to laugh at Leo because he can't handle Bob's problems. It's a fairly white movie, but there are a handful of POC's, notably Betty from Leo's answering service. And there aren't any jokes about race, gender, or what-not that feel cringe-worthy now. The thing that probably dates this movie the most is Joan Lunden's 80s hair during the Good Morning America segment.

Recommendation?

Probably. I liked it, but I know some people whom it definitely rubbed the wrong way.

Tune in next week for a tale as old as time...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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