Not quite making it into the Bill Murray film pantheon, Frank Oz’s What About Bob? is a wholesome bromance comedy worthy of a VHS resurrection.
It’s July 31st and discerning psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) is finishing up his final day of practice before a month long vacation with the family in their New Hampshire holiday home. With a potential bestselling book named ‘Baby Steps’ and an interview with a nationwide good morning television show in the pipeline, life couldn’t be better for the emotionally callous professor; that is until he is referred a model patient by the name of Bob Wiley (a rubber-faced Bill Murray). Bob has problems. He’s neurotic, terrified of germs, disease, sleep, he’s narcissistic and incredibly needy. After a preliminary interview, Leo sends Bob baby-stepping out of his office, bidding him farewell until he reopens his practice again. Bob, however, cannot stand to go on for a whole month without his newfound saviour at his side. Finding his address after some incriminating detective work, Bob is soon standing in the middle of a Lake Winnipesaukee with his goldfish Gil, bellowing the doctor’s name and asking, “Is this a bad time?” With Bob befriending the wife and kids, Leo spends his should-be relaxing holiday trying to shake his new house guest.
A happy family in a remote setting, stalked by a deranged man with an unreasonable fixation on the father: What About Bob? is Cape Fear played for laughs. Although it would have been astonishing to see Woody Allen in the doctor role like director Frank Oz had intended, the fortuitous teaming of Dreyfuss and Murray is expertly pitched. In terms of temperament, they are polar opposites; Dreyfuss’ tightly wound demeanour makes him ready to explode at any given moment, with Murray oozing the affable, bozo appeal that will push him over the edge.
However, after a promising first forty minutes of to-and-fro, the dynamics between the two start to wane and the story turns sluggish. Bob crosses paths with the Marvin family, who implausibly fall head over heels for this new oddball on the block. Fay and the children instantly side with Bob against the pompous doctor, pushy parent and distanced lover. Very quickly, the story’s emphasis on Bob’s lovability becomes as frustrating to the audience as it is to Dr. Marvin, who is driven absolutely wild. Pushed to his limits, it’s an interesting switchover when the doctor turns out to be the one with the screw loose, but it’s a something we can see a country mile off.
Written by Tom Schulman of Dead Poet’s Society fame, What About Bob? has broad gags running alongside some smaller character nuances carved out by Dreyfuss, Murray, and the ever brilliant Julie Hagerty as Leo’s airhead trophy wife.
Thematically lighter and frankly not as funny, Bill Murray’s Bob is much like Jim Carrey’s infectious and enigmatic maniac in the Ben Stiller directed flop The Cable Guy, in that their eccentricities start off as enjoyably bizarre but end up turning increasingly annoying. What About Bob? What about him, indeed.