What About Bob? (1991)

2010 #15
Frank Oz | 95 mins | TV | PG / PG

What About Bob is a comedy about mental health. As such, it feels primed for misunderstanding and inappropriateness. And it is indeed a little worrying early on: Bill Murray’s performance is, from the off, superbly believable, but it’s undercut by bad ‘this is a comedy’ music that suggests we’re meant to laugh at his impairments rather than feel sympathy. And maybe that’s what the screenplay, direction and performance were actually aiming at, but, personally, I don’t find laughing at the mentally disabled all that funny, even in a film nearly 20 years old. At one point, people clap as Bob gets off a bus he struggled to even get on — perhaps this is meant to indicate “thank God he got off!”, but I choose to take it as them celebrating his achievement, because, if not, it’s just attacking the disabled again.

Fortunately, after these troubling moments in the film’s early minutes, the tone becomes more settled. Once Bob’s made it to New Hampshire, inappropriately on the trail of his new therapist Dr Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), and begins to get to know Dr Marvin’s family, the film really lifts off. From here out we get a nice array of, essentially, related sketches. That does them something of a disservice: each is linked and they build in a well-structured fashion as Bob finds himself accepted as part of Dr Marvin’s all-important family, leading to the turning point of a Good Morning America interview, where love for Bob spreads out into (to all intents and purposes) the whole world; and then Dr Marvin’s last potential safe haven of sanity, his fellow therapists, are won round too.

The film hinges entirely on Murray and Dreyfuss, and both are excellent in their respective roles. Murray portrays Bob’s mental health struggles early on in a way that would garner wider praise for accuracy if this were a drama, showing the potential he’s only unleashed in more recent years to play straight roles. But he’s equally good as the film becomes a clear-cut comedy: Bob doesn’t suddenly become a caricature, but is revealed as a good-natured, child-like, fun-loving person who, perhaps, just needs some care and love from others to help his conditions. Dreyfuss, meanwhile, is slickly believable as the uncaring fame-minded therapist, whose true nature — and problems — begin to unravel the more he’s confronted with Bob.

What we see here is that the apparently-afflicted patient is actually in a pretty good place (almost), while the apparently-perfect doctor is actually on the verge of a complete collapse (which, of course, he ultimately has). If it feels a little like a stereotyped plot arc, I’m not entirely certain why; and What About Bob? plays it out with enough truthfulness and humour to make it entirely palatable.

Believe it or not, some side with the psychotherapist, viewing Bob as a damnable annoyance that no one but Dr Marvin can see. It’s an interesting way to view the film, certainly, but I suspect whether you ‘side’ with Bob or Dr Marvin says more about you as a person than it does about the film, the characters or the performances. It seems starkly obvious to me that Bob is the ‘good guy’, a nice but troubled chap who just wants to get by and have a good time, while Dr Marvin is a control freak with a raft of suppressed problems that are gradually unveiled throughout the film until they ultimately overwhelm him. He’s not a bad chap per se, but he is in the wrong.

What About Bob? seems to have been forgotten — I’d never even heard of it until it was on TV at the tail end of last year — but that’s unfair. I can only assume it stems from those people who seem to have misinterpreted it, because such a misinterpretation must make it quite an awkward experience. Seen correctly, however, What About Bob? is a funny, heartening, feel-good comedy that deserves to be better remembered.

4 out of 5