It’s 1991, and if you’re a lucky, healthy ignorant you haven’t had to think about mental illness for much of your life outside of an easy reader self-help book swimming in your nightstand dust. You catch the latest Bill Murray comedy, perhaps even noting that Miss Piggy directed it if you’re a child at heart, and gently find yourself introduced to the inadequate treatment of mental illness, laughing all the way. From the opening credits that rest uncomfortably close to one another, What About Bob? kicks into a sophisticated but often physical comedy that broadly pokes fun at the treatment of mental health in a way that uniquely combines the sympathies of Oscar dramas on the subject with the absurdity of its muppeteer director.
A man for whom the phrase “tightly wound” was invented, narcissistic psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss chewing his own teeth) attempts to take a vacation from his work and his patient, the neurotic teddy bear Bob Wiley (Bill Murray). Because of Leo’s pride and disdainful condescension for Bob we know he plays the villain to our goofball, even if the movie looks through his eyes. While we, the audience, may chuckle at Bob’s silliness, Dreyfuss chooses never to let his character find his patient funny. Instead, he sits in a defensive, expectant, even entitled manor, assuming Bob will fill the void of their time together. He waits quietly for Bob to finish talking, and then does exactly what he set his mind to doing before their conversation began. He offers his own book. “Not everything in it will apply to you,” he says, holding up the title like an advertising cardboard cut-out and never implying he’ll later bill his sucker of a patient for it. The movie’s magical coincidence is that, by silly luck, the book’s overly simplistic method works. Bob considers Leo almost as great a psychiatrist as Leo does, and gosh darn it he wants more. Bob will spend the rest of the film simply trying his best to grow closer to the human connection he’s made.
Unlike Leo, What About Bob?‘s laugh riots don’t drown out victims of bad psychiatric care, but amplify them. The movie’s message isn’t prudish; Murray still has plenty of fun at his own expense, but often it is subtly making a point. “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,” Bob recites in an early shot, massaging sweat into his face and surrounded by pill bottles, a humidifier, and his piscatorial support animal. Caution: self-help books at work. A lesser film would have made Bob into the pitiable at best social misfit that Leo thinks he is. Only 16 years earlier, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Oscars placing a “sane” man as the only hope for a group of pathetic mental asylum inmates. But even as Bob dances like a toddler trying not to wet his pants in front of bus, the driver knows his name. He has good intentions, goals to get better, and the can do attitude that allows everyone around him to smile and root for him. Thus, we root for him without pitying, hoping for his success like the hometown team rather than the littlest kid on a playground.
Reviewing a 3-decade old comedy rarely is spoken of as a refreshing experience, but What About Bob? stands outside movie history in its mental health depiction. Buried between the crazed Halloween-like movies about serial killers whose depraved brains make them embodiments of evil is this little gem of a comedy that wonders what would happen if the mentally ill were treated like people. Too often even now, Hollywood wields psychiatric illness like a machete or a crutch. Mental patients are killers (Split) or haunted paranoids (Shutter Island, The Ward) far more often than real people. Why? Because it’s hard! As satirized by the Simple Jack segment in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, executing a psychologically challenged person of any kind often can be disastrous. Praise for sympathetic performances of this kind such as in I Am Sam drowns in the comments of the mental health community for getting so much wrong. The effort often does not feel worth it for filmmakers.
But it’s noble. When any person starts to realize they struggle with depression, agoraphobia, a learning disorder or any other psychological problem, they immediately recall any experiences they might have had with mental illness. Often these recollections consist of movies, television, literature, and any other media. These flashes of fiction don’t really encourage anyone to put themself in the same category as Rain Man and Tyler Durden. Like all bits of representation, mental illness in film changes audience attitude in the real world. Of course, it’s tough to get this kind of person depicted right; like everyone, they’re complex people! Yet this 90’s star-driven comedy not only executes a well-rounded (if likely undiagnosable to real world standards) mentally ill character that neither seems offensively over the top nor ill only when plot convenience calls. Not only that, but without sacrificing boisterous laughs, Bob’s fight against Leo’s quick fix solutions to his illness acts as a simple allegory for a mental health patient trying to advocate for themself only to find nobody to advocate to.
At the end of his first meeting with Bob, Leo correctly diagnoses him for the last time in the film. While he notes his need for family connections, he is completely unwilling to give them to him; outside of improving his own career, he couldn’t care less for actually helping his patient improve. A scene in which Bob investigates his own suicide while posing as a homicide detective points out how little the doctor cares. Leo reacts to the fake news with a dismissive, “Ah well, let’s not let it spoil our vacation” before clapping off his lamp to sleep in one of the film’s beautiful marriages of theme and physical comedy. Upon discovering his patient is alive, rather than checking on him, Leo runs from him like someone avoiding a clingy ex-partner. It is frustrating to watch when he meets with Bob afterwards, not to listen but to hand out a lecture, punctuated with a quick fix prescription. While Leo never reaches Nurse Ratched levels of overt villainy, these moments places the industry of psychiatry in the antagonist place.
Alongside Murray and Dreyfuss’ performances, Frank Oz’s direction is the funniest part of the movie. For such a visual medium, film comedy in the twenty first century relies heavily on awkwardly crude dialogue and over the top reaction shots. Oz shows us how it’s done, adapting the visual language that worked so well with his Muppet work. While his cinematography may not be flash outside of the incredibly well shot sleepover between Bob and Leo’s son Sigmund, Oz’s shot choices always demonstrate an understanding of how to make what you see funny instead of merely what you hear. “He’s never gone!” wouldn’t be such a funny line from Leo if it weren’t for Oz framing him and Bob perfectly on two sides of a door. Notice too how often Bob performs in the same frame as a family that’s supposed to be Leo’s, or the ominous note imposed by an upward looking shot of Leo smiling at Bob in his car. Other examples, from a wide oner mapping Leo’s journey in and out of his own car, from thinking he’s finally got one over on Bob to realizing his utter defeat. Every modern comedy director who lets the camera role while his improvisational actors riff on one another should take notes on the entire birthday party sequence, which shoots Dreyfuss almost as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Revisiting this underrated Murray gem teaches more than expected. Anyone afraid of outdated depictions or jokes that may offend in their nostalgic rewatches can rest their eyes here. You will discover a peak of comedy directing, and a movie that speaks to modern struggles against a healthcare system that would rather profit off the ill than help them. You will also have a new image of mental health to walk away from the screen with. Perhaps the next time you encounter a psychologically struggling friend or even your own issue, you’ll laugh at yourself as you think in the terms of What About Bob?