What About Bob? (1991)
Written by Tom Schulman
Directed by Frank Oz
For the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in the 1990s, becoming an interest in the early 2000s. This is nothing new. I remember being a teenager in the 1990s and noting the interest in the 1960s turned into the same for the 1970s in the early 2000s. American culture seems caught in a loop of cultural recycling that operates on a 20-30 year scale. What often happens during these nostalgia-driven periods is that the most obvious relics of eras get all of the attention. Unfortunately, that means other media from these periods become increasingly forgotten as time goes by. I wanted to spend a couple weeks looking at some movies from the 1990s that I’ve seen & wanted to revisit or have heard about for years and finally sat down to watch. My hope is that I can highlight some overlooked movies from the 1990s.
Most of you around my age are likely familiar with What About Bob? but possibly not. The film is about Bob (Bill Murray), a decent guy with many phobias. His current therapist leaves the profession, driven to madness by Bob’s constant neediness, and recommends the patient to Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss). Leo has just published his first book, Baby Steps which has garnered a fair amount of publicity. He has an introductory meeting with Bob and lets him know they will meet again in a month when Leo has returned from a family vacation at his lake house. Bob is so needy that he cannot handle this and goes about discovering the house location and crashing the vacation. Because he’s so charming, Leo’s family quickly comes to love Bob while Leo spirals into insanity about being upstaged by this stranger.
I have seen What About Bob? many times, but I paid attention to a few details I was curious about for this viewing. One theme that stood out to me through this viewing was that places can lift up or bring down people. In the film, Bob struggles in the city. Leaving his apartment is terrifying, and we see the urban landscape from his perspective. It’s loud, people are angry, and the buildings are so tall. I cannot deny that city living is just not ideal for Bob. However, almost as soon as he arrives in the rural area by the lake, Bob begins thriving. He does things that would have scared him before, he completely embraces this new way of living. Leo may not realize it, but this is Bob’s happy place; the countryside is where he should relocate because his phobias melt away.
For the reverse, we have Leo. In his big city skyrise office, he is confident & in control. However, we see his power unravel when Leo gets to the lake country. Even before Bob imposes himself on the family, Leo has clashes with his wife, Fay (Julie Hagerty), and kids, Anna & Siggy (Kathryn Erbe & Charlie Korsmo, respectively). He becomes so discombobulated by his looming interview with Good Morning America in a location that is not best for him that Leo breaks down. Leo probably would not have gone to the extremes he does if Bob had not arrived, but the vacation would be a downer regardless. In this way, the story is about how different people thrive in different settings. It’s not a solution for everyone, but there are people born into families who live in the “wrong” place, and as a result, they struggle until they are an adult and find a way out.
Another significant observation I had while watching this was that Bill Murray has the best lines but that Richard Dreyfuss is much funnier to me now than when I was a kid. Before going further with this, I want to just talk for a bit about the shifting public perception of Bill Murray. I’d heard questionable things about him for years, and much like many other celebrities, the public turned a blind eye. Murray left his first wife after having an affair with the woman who would become his second wife. His second wife filed for divorce in 2008, accusing him of cheating, domestic violence, and multiple substance abuse addictions. Now people make accusations during nasty divorces, but something about these made a lot of sense. Murray does exude the “wild & crazy guy” type of persona, something he’s shaped in this second act of his career to his advantage, securing himself a sort of folk hero status among people my age.
I don’t think Murray is the good person he would like us to believe. Publicly he voiced support for the Trump tax cuts in 2018 and went on a tirade against Leftist politics. It was the same hollow “cancel culture,” “woke” bullshit that so many of these angry rich dudes are trotting out these days. They can dry up their tears with money from the pile they sit on. The set of What About Bob? apparently was also the site of Murray showing his ass. Murray & Dreyfuss have both separately confirmed that they did not get along while making the film. Dreyfuss flatly stated about Murray in a 2007 AV Club interview “Terribly unpleasant experience. We didn’t get along, Bill Murray […], and I don’t like him.” The producer of this film, Laura Ziskin, has shared a story that she had a disagreement on the production with Murray, leading him to throw her in the lake.
There are more stories like this, all along the same lines, even with Harold Ramis, where Murray fell out with him while making Groundhog Day. Sofia Coppola has reported that Scarlett Johansson did not care for Murray, nor did he for her, while making Lost in Translation. In Geena Davis’s recent memoir, she recalls working with Murray on the set of Quick Change that he berated and inappropriately touched her. There’s even footage of Murray & Davis on The Arsenio Hall Show where the actor keeps trying to pull down Davis’s spaghetti strap despite her being visibly uncomfortable. All this to say, you love Murray because he is a pretty good actor. His public persona is also a role he uses to keep getting people to pay to see his work.
Rewatching What About Bob? I noticed something. Dreyfuss is funnier in this movie. Murray is doing his Murray schtick, which is good, but Dreyfuss is acting his ass off as Leo Marvin. It’s not just his big, broad, temper tantrum reactions. Watching his face in scenes where he is restrained and simply reacting to what Murray does. It’s great comedy, the sort of thing that often gets overlooked but adds such important detail to a scene. Dreyfuss is a great acting partner because he’s not just stepping aside as Murray mugs for the camera but is letting Leo engage with this behavior in a way that also progresses his character.
Much credit has to be given to Frank Oz, the director of this film. His filmography as a director has always fascinated me, making his feature directorial debut with Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, then The Muppets Take Manhattan leading to Little Shop of Horrors. That last film marked a pivot where we got introduced to the filmmaker’s wry & dark sense of humor. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was followed by What About Bob? After this film, he kept working, but the quality of the pictures faded. They aren’t complete disasters, but the humor doesn’t hit quite as hard, though they still retain his love of dark comedy for the most part.
I was pleasantly delighted in 2021 when I was teaching on the online platform Outschool; I encountered a 12-year-old girl who heralded What About Bob? as her favorite film. I was leading a class for upper elementary/middle school children on Studio Ghibli films, looking at themes and characters mostly. I can’t remember the context, but it made me laugh when she said it was her favorite film. I believe “baby stepping around the office” was said by her at one point. Despite Murray’s personal issues, What About Bob? is still a solid 1990s comedy. It’s broad enough to appeal to the masses but chock full of subtle details in the actors’ performances to make it worth re-watching. And may we all be thankful that NBC’s attempted sequel, What About Barb? starring Anne Hathaway & Rebel Wilson, died in pre-production. Of course, not all movies need sequels/reboots.