Almost 25 years later, What About Bob? stirs up debate in some quarters: Who is the villain of the movie? Is it Bob Wiley (Bill Murray), a bottomlessly needy and boundary-disregarding phobic? Or is it Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), an arrogant psychoanalyst, publicity hound, and author of a bestselling pop-psych book? From where I sit, they’re both pretty awful, and they make a natural match. Bob is palmed off onto Leo by another shrink, and even when Leo goes on vacation with his family, Bob shows up at the door of their lakeside summer house. Bob gloms onto Leo as his only road out of fear. Leo just wants to be left in peace.
And so begins a classic battle of wills based on how each man relates to the world. Introduced to Leo’s somewhat intimidated family, Bob almost immediately drops most of his neuroses and snuggles into their good graces, befriending Leo’s son (Charlie Korsmo) — unfortunately named Sigmund — in particular. Leo’s wife (Julie Hagerty) and daughter (Kathryn Erbe) likewise love Bob, while Leo fumes in solitary fury. All Leo wants is to be able to prepare for his upcoming interview with Good Morning America; he obsesses about it so much that fans of the film could get a decent drinking game going by slamming a shot every time someone says Good Morning America.
Bob represents a true challenge to a boastful man who prides himself on helping people. For a while, the movie plays like Frasier Meets the Devil, with Murray as the nightmare patient whose depredations nobody but Leo can perceive. But Leo has his own demons, and Bob functions as brute therapy for Leo (and gentler, fun therapy for his family). What About Bob? isn’t perfect; its script is a bit sloppy at times, or perhaps interfered-with at the studio level. For instance, it sends Leo around the bend that Bob seems to have ingratiated himself with Leo’s sister, a character we’ve only seen in a photo before; we are asked to take Leo’s closeness to his sister on faith, but we don’t feel it or see it, which relieves the plot’s final twist of some of its intended sting. And the director, Frank Oz, enjoys his actors but treats them like Muppets, and doesn’t much care about anything else in front of the camera: there’s an exterior shot with a thunderstorm that’s so blatantly faked by a rain machine it’s a little embarrassing.
Still, this is essentially a two-man comedy riff, of the sort we see less and less at the movies, and as much as I love Bill Murray and admired the skittish technique of his performance, it was Richard Dreyfuss — grinning viciously and ironically becoming the Wile E. Coyote that Bob seems at first to be named after — who got more laughs out of me. Partly it’s the fun of seeing a stuffed shirt spattered with mud and finally becoming homicidally insane, but partly it’s the palpable glee Dreyfuss takes in his middle-period second career as a cartoonish farceur. By both men’s accounts, there was no love lost between Murray and Dreyfuss on the set, and this sharpens Leo’s rage, gives it roots in something real.
This is not to ignore Murray, whose Bob begins as exasperating but develops into something more complicated and mysterious, and perhaps darker. Does Bob only wedge himself into Leo’s family as a way to punish Leo for rejecting him? How much of what Bob says or does is well-meant as opposed to passive-aggressive and only incidentally therapeutic? Murray kind of keeps it ambiguous, at least as much as a mainstream comedy (with yet another terrible generic-comedy music score by Miles Goodman) will allow, while Dreyfuss certainly plays it as though he considered Leo the hero. It could very well be that the Dude’s words to Walter in The Big Lebowski apply equally to Leo: “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.” Leo thinks Bob is a monster and a pain and potentially dangerous, and maybe he’s not wrong, but…