Bill Murray takes the piss in ‘What About Bob?’ — Ultimate Movie Year

Bill Murray looks to invade the life of Richard Dreyfuss in the 1991 comedy, “What About Bob?” (Buena Vista Pictures/MovieStillsDB.com)

“What About Bob?”
Released May 17, 1991
Directed by Frank Oz
Where to Watch

Few comedy actors have defined their star personas as well as Bill Murray. The former “Saturday Night Live” star became an 80s icon, thanks to the sardonic and disaffected wiseass he played in movies like 1981’s “Stripes,” 1984’s “Ghostbusters,” and 1988’s “Scrooged.”

That’s one reason why “What About Bob?” is an enduring delight because Murray swaps comedic personalities and remains just as compelling and hilarious.

Murray plays Bob Wiley, a sweet but needy neurotic with multiple phobias referred to his latest psychologist, Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss). Leo has a quick introductory session with Bob, gives him a copy of his self-help book, “Baby Steps,” and shoos him out the door so he can begin his extended family vacation — a development that puts Bob in a panic.

Through constant phone calls, deception, and dumb luck, Bob can track down exactly where Leo and his family stay for the summer. While Leo is increasingly irritated by Bob’s appearances, his patient manages to endure himself to the rest of the Marvin family, escalating the tension. It isn’t long before the people around Leo start wondering if the doctor needs mental health counseling himself.

Watching “What About Bob?” now, we can easily see Murray is relishing the rare chance to turn up his maniacal, goofball energy to the max. It’s a go-for-broke commitment to silliness audiences hadn’t seen from him since 1980’s “Caddyshack,” where he played a weirdo groundskeeper. But “What About Bob?” wouldn’t work as well without Dreyfuss, who brings a prickly, impatient intelligence to his performance that, like Murray’s lunacy, is slowly cranked up during the movie. The game of the film is watching Leo slowly realize that he isn’t just watching and tolerating a fish out of water; it’s that he’s becoming the fish.

The movie was directed by Frank Oz, the legendary puppeteer behind various Muppets like Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, along with a wise Jedi master named Yoda in the Star Wars franchise. Oz dreamed of directing his own films — inspired by a viewing of 1958’s “Touch of Evil” as a child — and began his own career in the chair with 1983’s “The Dark Crystal,” a fantasy film he co-directed with Jim Henson that featured several puppetry innovations on film. Oz would go on as a solo director on 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” 1986’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” and 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” before working on “What About Bob?”

The production proved to be a challenge because the animosity between Bob and Leo extended to the real-life tension between Murray and Dreyfuss. This marks a period in his career where Murray was reportedly difficult to work with, as he pushed back against other collaborators like Richard Donner on 1988’s “Scrooged” and Harold Ramis on 1993’s “Groundhog Day.”

“A tough, tough movie to shoot,” Oz told IGN in 2000. “The memories of that are that there was a lot of tension on the set, because everybody had their own viewpoint on how to make the movie better. My viewpoint on that is relief that it turned out so well and was liked so much, because there was a lot of tension.”

“Funny movie,” Dreyfuss told the A.V. Club in 2009. “Terribly unpleasant experience. We didn’t get along, me and Bill Murray. But I’ve got to give it to him: I don’t like him, but he makes me laugh even now. I’m also jealous that he’s a better golfer than I am. It’s a funny movie. No one ever comes up to you and says, “I identify with the patient.” They always say, “I have patients like that. I identify with your character.” No one ever says that they’re willing to identify with the other character.”

“(We) didn’t get along on the movie particularly, but it worked for the movie,” Murray said in 1993. “I mean, I drove him nuts, and he encouraged me to drive him nuts.”

Times have changed, and it’s hard to imagine Murray’s reputation would have endured if these stories came out today. In the late 90s and early 00s, Murray connected with two young directors — Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola — that helped rejuvenate his career by featuring him in roles that modified that trademark sarcasm with a lingering melancholy. By many accounts, Murray has been a dream to work with since.

“What About Bob?” premiered at the top of the box office with a $9.2 million gross, well ahead of every other movie. The comedy enjoyed a strong two-month run in theaters during a competitive movie summer, ultimately making a total of $63.7 million in ticket sales.

“‘What About Bob?’ begins as a rambunctious satire,” Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review in Entertainment Weekly. “Director Frank Oz shows too much restraint, and the script, by Tom Schulman, pulls a major punch: Bob’s phobias disappear almost overnight he turns into the classic Bill Murray schmoozer — and so the tension between Bob and the shrink loses its comic edge. ‘What About Bob?’ is just funny enough to make you wish it had been wilder and less predictable.”

There’s a rich vein of dark comedy in “What About Bob?” that’s easier to recognize in hindsight, particularly as it relates to Murray’s career because he plays Bob as a sweet (if annoying) guy. It’s a unique and fun role for the legendary star and remains an entertaining watch for a lazy afternoon.

At the Box Office: As mentioned, “What About Bob?” took the top spot in its opening weekend, becoming the first movie we highlighted in the summer of ’91 series to do so. In second place with $3.8 million was “F/X 2,” the stuntman/detective buddy movie we mentioned last week when it premiered.

In third place was “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” entering its second week with a 487 screen increase in its distribution to earn $3.4 million. The bizarre body swap movie “Switch” dropped to fourth place with a $3 million gross for the weekend. Closing out the top five was “Stone Cold,” with former NFL player Brian Bosworth looking to jump to Hollywood. He … did not succeed. The action film debuted with a $2.8 million gross for the weekend.

Other movies that debuted this weekend included the sequel “Mannequin: On the Move,” “Auntie Danielle,” and “Opening Night.”

In the News: Queen Elizabeth II becomes the first British monarch to address the United States Congress; After reportedly leaving Madonna’s apartment last week, Jose Canseco is forced to endure New York Yankee fans mocking him with the song, “Like a Virgin;” the R&B boy band, Hi-Five, topped the Billboard 100 with their single, “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game).”

Next Week: “Thelma & Louise”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on May 14, 2021.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

Movie enthusiast. Follow and subscribe for exclusive content!

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