‘What About Bob?’ at 30: Three Decades of Baby Steps
What a strange choice for a studio comedy, for 1991: The story of a mentally ill man, essentially stalking his therapist, and it’s played for laughs.
What About Bob? was a much more subversive movie than what studios were typically churning out at the time. And while it’s 1993’s Groundhog Daythat’s been endlessly analyzed and re-claimed as a classic, Bill Murray‘s film from two years earlier holds up nearly as well.
Directed by Frank Oz, and written by Dead Poets Society‘s Tom Schulman, What About Bob? arrived in May of 1991, from the Disney label Buena Vista Pictures. The film starred Murray as Bob, a troubled man who suffers a wide variety of anxiety and phobias. His former psychiatrist, who it’s implied is quitting his practice for Bob-related reasons, refers Bob to Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), an egotistical shrink and author of a simplistic self-help book called “Baby Steps.”
What About Bob? was a much more subversive movie than what studios were typically churning out
After their first meeting, Bob forms an unhealthy attachment to Dr. Marvin, which leads to such red-flag behavior as constant phone calls, a fake suicide claim, and eventually Bob following Marvin to his vacation home in New Hampshire.
The bulk of the film is set at that vacation home, and consists of a war of wills between the two men, with Bob annoying Dr. Marvin, but the rest of his family (and everybody else in the New Hampshire town), deciding that they love Bob and are on his side.
Murray, playing the part with wild hair, portrays Bob, not as a cynic like so many of the actor’s most indelible characters, but instead as something of a puppy dog, a man child who, despite his serious issues, is generally lovable. Considering that 30 years ago, the popular understanding of mental health wasn’t nearly where it is today, the film was surprisingly comfortable with making Bob the hero and placing the audience sympathies with him.
A version of the movie made today would likely have handled the mental health part differently, but the actual treatment of it wasn’t particularly offensive or off-color.
Richard Dreyfuss’ Dr. Marvin is a wonderful creation, a sort of proto-Dr. Phil who’s clearly more interested in fame and self-regard than in helping people. He’s the kind of guy who would name his son after Sigmund Freud.
Dreyfus’ kids, meanwhile are played by future Law & Order: SVU actress Kathryn Erbe ― playing a teenager, despite being about 25 at the time ― and Charlie Korsmo, who starred in several movies as a child actor, quit acting, became a professor, and returned to the movies for the 2019 film Chained For Life.
Just as in the movie, Murray and Dreyfuss are said to have not gotten along on the set, although perhaps it’s one of those feuds that helped the movie.
What About Bob? might not be as beloved a film as Groundhog Day, or some of Murray’s 1980s comedies, or even his turn towards the dramatic in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but it’s a winning comedy, which found laughs in unlikely places.