Bill Murray made the neurotic his stock in trade throughout the 80s but he reached new height with the role of Bob Wiley, “an almost paralysed multiphobic personality in a constant state of panic” who’s referred to celebrity psychiatrist Leo Marvin, played by Richard Dreyfuss, when his regular therapist ditches him. Unfortunately for Bob, Leo is about to take a month’s sabbatical, and retreat from his New York offices to his vacation home in Lake Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire, to prepare for an upcoming appearance on Good Morning America. Unfortunately for Leo, Bob follows him there, ingratiates himself with his family, and threatens to derail his entire public profile as the television interview draws near.
As that might suggest, What About Bob? draws heavily upon the screwball comedies of the 30s, which frequently inverted the rhetoric of madness to present therapists as the zany ones. As Stanley Cavell famously noted, these films typically included a pastoral interlude, in which a sparring couple retreated to the New England wilds to work on their marriage. Both those tropes continue into What About Bob? but with a slightly different inflection, as Leo retreats to New Hampshire to congeal his family into their media image on Good Morning America, and Bob follows him to try and achieve the healthy therapist relationship that has always eluded him. The more time Bob spends with the Marvins, the saner he becomes, while Leo soon descends into all the antisocial traits that he initially diagnoses in (or projects onto) Bob.
No surprise, then, that Bob’s pathologies are both spatial and psychological. In the opening scene, we see him absorbing the neuroses of the inner city, as he goes through one OCD ritual after another before exiting to a streetscape comprised of sirens, barking dogs and black children. No sooner has he left the house than he crumbles to the ground, and hugs the pavement, willing it all to go away, not unlike Peter Sellers’ encounter with inner-city blight in Being There. Bob’s one vestige of calm is the goldfish he keeps in his apartment, a distant forerunner of the New England lakes where the majority of the action unfolds. In these early scenes, the film could easily take a more serious and dramatic route, so it’s a testament to Oz’s control of tone, and Murray’s own performance, that it manages to become truly comic.
This comedy centres on Murray’s capacity for physical comedy, which is given its freest and fullest rein to date through Bob’s neuroses. Bob continually has to fake conditions, from Tourette’s to cardiac arrest, to prove to himself that he doesn’t have them. More generally, as he himself puts it, “I have a real big problem moving,” since he can’t touch anything, he can’t stand confined spaces, and he can’t stand open spaces either. He has a particular problem with public spaces, where his body just tends to shut down, and this is the first area that Leo targets in their inaugural therapy session. It turns out that Leo has just written a book called Baby Steps, which he hopes to turn into a bestseller with his appearance on Good Morning America, and his treatment consists of giving a copy to Bob, and charging him for it.
Yet this just ushers in a new level of physical comedy, since Bob takes Leo’s advice literally, turning himself into even more of a baby in order to take the steps. Watching him learn to move again is like seeing Murray’s unique body language reduced to its most formative stages – his preternatural ability to float through space, and charm whatever space is in front of him. Murray always looks like he’s dancing, so seeing Bob elasticise and relax is a special spectacle, almost redolent of silent cinema, as Murray luxuriates in one of the loosest and most limber roles of his career, producing an exquisite sense of play and performance. That’s not to say that Murray is sombient either, since this combination of languor and neurosis captures the essential dynamic of his persona and voice – he always has a languorous quality at his most animated, but even at his most relaxed still feels as if he could flip out at any moment as well.
When Bob follows Leo to the country, then, it’s a bid at escaping both his own neuroses and the inner city and relaxing into a more rural and refined body language. Like Quick Change, released a year earlier, Murray is in parodic white flight mode, encountering a series of racial caricatures as gatekeepers for the city, and thresholds to the country. When he tries to contact Leo by phone, he’s met by a sassy black woman who initially refuses to place the call, so he poses as Leo’s sister, then turns up at the telephone interchange in the guise of a detective, informing this woman that Bob, the man who called her, has now committed suicide. Leaving her to live with that guilt, he then tries several times to board a bus run by a broadly drawn Chinese woman, eventually taking the plunge when she bullies him into it. Even the name of the lake – Winnipesaukee – is presented as campily and conspicuously “Indian” here, as every figure relishes its many syllables at one point or another in the film.
By the time Bob arrives at the lake, the stage is a set for a showdown with Leo and the cultural capital that he represents. This conflict is all the most comic in that both actors are playing against type, since Dreyfuss has traditionally opted for sincere and sentimental characters, while Murray’s nearly always have a cynical and world-weary core. By contrast, Bob is totally credulous and ingenuous, which sits awryly with Murray’s penchant for characters who appear to be ingenuous, or who affect credulity to further their own agenda. As a result, Bob is best when he’s hysterically trying to believe his own words, since it gives Murray license to signal that he doesn’t quite buy himself in this role either, without ever opting for total ironic detachment either. Instead, Murray goes for an exquisite and elaborate sense of play – a palpable sense of playing with his own persona. He’s quite clearly having fun with this role.
That sense of play extends to Dreyfus, who relishes depicting a persona that was relatively new at this time – the therapist as corporate schmuck, the psychiatrist as douchebag. Leo runs a tight ship, and a staunchly Freudian family – he keeps two busts of Freud, one in his office, and one in his lake house, where he poses beside it to prepare for the Good Morning America interview. His son is named Sigmund, his daughter Anna, and Anna comments casually on the phallic symbolism of her father’s rifle, while Leo talks just as frankly to Sigmund about his death-drive while teaching him to dive on the jetty behind the lake house.
In other words, the Marvins are the pinnacle of the white nuclear family – they’ve internalised, repressed and supposedly traversed the lessons of psychoanalysis. That produces some pretty weird scenes, especially when Leo talks to Anna about Bob in the only way he knows how – through a pair of ventriloquial dummies. Nevertheless, Leo is counting on the Good Morning America interview to cement his supreme position as father-therapist with the lake house as backdrop, meaning he grows more anxious about Bob’s presence as the date arrives. Again, we see the traces of screwball comedies, which often measured their couples against a media event, and the traces of those traces in a familiar trope here for viewers of 90s cinema – the white family who have to recalibrate at a New England lakeside.
Throughout this process, Bob is like the family’s repressed id, its lost sense of enjoyment – or alternatively, like Leo’s own unconscious, meaning he’s most present when he’s on the verge of repression, on the cusp of appearing or disappearing from view: “That’s the whole point – he’s never gone!” He disarms Leo even more by honestly acknowledging him as the family’s supergo – “That’s’s why we can’t blame him, he’s so far above us” – forcing Leo to recognise that his role as supreme father-therapist just isn’t all that important to the family, who much prefer the company of Bob, who recovers his fluid body language from them in turn, culminating with a scene in which they all perform “Singin’ in the Rain” while doing the dishes.
The more time Bob spends with the family, the more they believe in themselves, and the more extrinsic Leo seems as man of the house. Beyond a certain point, he’s all reaction shots, winces and pained stares, double takes on par with Steve Martin’s response to his son-in-law in the remake of Father of the Bride. In other words, Leo is a fantastic foil, as are the family as a whole – a gangly collection of oddballs just waiting to embrace their inner weirdness. Yet that weirdness becomes a new normal over the course of the second act, turning Leo into the neurotic, or even the psychotic, and the white American family into his pathological project. Leo discovers this himself right in the middle of his Good Morning America interview, when he starts to make Freudian slips, confounding “book”, “boob” and “Bob”, before cowering inside as Bob poses for the final interview photograph with his “family” on the steps outside.
Since Bob honestly acknowledges Leo as his superego, he’s largely impervious to Leo’s increasingly extreme efforts to weaponise psychological discourse. Leo’s next step is “intensive psychotherapy” – dumping Bob in a local institution – but this just makes Leo crazier and Bob saner. We cut from Leo laughing maniacally, and still carrying on an imaginary conversation with Bob, as he drives home from the institution, to Bob charming the doctors with wry, arch, knowing jokes about the state of psychotherapy – jokes that place his sanity beyond any reasonable doubt. With Bob declared sane, and Leo’s family on Bob’s side, all Leo has to bump up his authority is the concrete fact of his lake house itself, which Frank Oz emphasises with a monumental wide shot of car, porch and front tree when Leo gets home.
No sooner has Leo pulled up, though, than his wife Fay, played by Julie Hagerty, informs him that he has to turn straight around and pick up Bob from the institution now that he’s been deemed sane. Worse still, we cut back to Bob telling a joke about a therapist who bought a house, a car and a tree – all the things we saw in the last shot – only to realise that they were mere status symbols, surrogates for sexual anxiety. Therapy itself is pathologised now, as Bob squares the circle between id and superego, and Leo descends into a properly psychotic state. It’s latent when he picks up Bob, leading the doctors to suggest he check himself into the institution, and it peaks on the car trip home, when he runs afoul of law and order, and falls in a pile of mud. Finally, Leo arrives home at the same moment he regresses to the anal stage, to adopt the parlance of his own psychoanalytic practice as it collapses before his very eyes.
At this very moment, he’s confronted with his own ego ideal, in the form of a surprise birthday party – a collection of all his most devoted admirers, who shine a spotlight straight in his face as he stumbles onto the balcony and confronts the father-therapist image he has erected around himself. This light is utterly blinding after he has felt his way home with mud in his eyes, and the glare of his own self-image is just as oppressive too. Not only does Bob now become the man of the house but he absorbs all of Leo’s professional expertise as well, correcting the local doctor about the medication he provides and helping to escort Leo to his bedroom. It’s a moment that seems to mark a broader shift in the public perception of the therapist from a purveyor of wisdom to a provider of goods – goods that any layman can get their mind around if they spend enough time studying the practices of their own therapist.
As a result, the therapist, and the practice of therapy, becomes redundant at this point, forcing Leo to resort to the most criminal and antisocial behaviour to keep his fantasies of paternal omniscience alive. After being put to bed, he promptly breaks out of the house, breaks into the general store, and passes over a gun and crossbow before deciding on dynamite and rifle as his weapon of choice. Without the nuclear family to prop him up, the psychoanalyst becomes a family annihilator, as Sigmund, Leo’s own son, seems to intuit: “That’s how mass murders happen – no one sees it coming, then snap!” Yet Leo has to dispose of Bob first, tying him up in the forest, and attaching dynamite to him, with a series of inchoate grunts and snorts that in no way ruffle Bob’s perception of his talent. In fact, Bob sees this as his greatest innovation yet – “death therapy,” the most high stakes treatment that’s possible.
When Bob escapes, and brings the dynamite back to the house, he has no idea that he’s going to blow it up, with the entire Marvin family watching on from the jetty. Yet if Bob is Leo’s unconscious, then must be what Leo wanted all along – his drive to be supreme father-therapist was a kind of family annihilation in and of itself, since it could never be satisfied until it reined in his family through death. A more conventional film might end with Leo absorbing some of Bob’s life-drive here, but instead he declines even further. The superego doesn’t tame and quell the id, and the house doesn’t effect a repression or resolution. Instead, Bob somewhat absorbs Leo, marrying his sister and becoming a therapist himself, although this last section is so parodically compressed that therapy no longer has any stable meaning, and instead corresponds to the exquisite play that renders Bob and Murray indistinguishable now.
The final note of the film is Bob’s marriage to Leo’s sister, which prompts an outraged response from Leo, who emerges briefly from his semi-catatonic state, before falling back into his wheelchair, as the family triumphantly declares “Dad’s back!” Of course, Leo isn’t back, but Bob isn’t present as their actual father in a complete way either. And the script “ends” here, in a weird space beyond the father-therapist and the Freudian family structure that supports him – a space it can only frame provisionally, in Murray-Bob’s taste for endless play, producing a film that never exactly ends, but rather offers a kind of repetition-compulsion, an injunction to watch it over and over to see if the outcome might ever change.