'What about Bob?' may have you wondering, what about sanity?

May 17, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Forget Bob. My question is, "What about Dad?" Oh Dad, poor Dad, he's been upstaged, discarded and committed; no wonder he's feeling so sad.The interesting thing about "What About Bob?" is that it doesn't seem to realize it's basically a horror movie and that the process it so mildly evokes is nothing less than the parable of patriarchal usurpation. At a deep level, it represents the superego's most passionate wish, regardless of whether you're a Freudian, a Jungian or a Dr. Ruthian: Let's kill Dad.

The movie plays Bill Murray as a sweet and innocent loon who gradually insinuates his way into the family of uptight Type-A psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss, usurps him and replaces him. Everybody in the movie and everybody who is affiliated with the film seems to think this is a terrific idea and takes a great deal of pleasure in the dismantling of the one and the crowning of the other.

Dreyfuss, of course, deserves the catastrophe that is visited upon him: He is successful, he has cared for his family exceedingly well and he is authoritarian and therefore he must be destroyed. (The screenwriter, Tom Schulman, played a similar game against the de rigueur fascist pop in his other big film, "The Dead Poets Society.")

The gimmick of the film is that multiphobic Bob Wiley (Murray) is actually a much better man than real dad Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), whose success has made him smug and remote. This is not apparent in the early going, where Bob is all but crippled by his legion of insecurities and dodders about New York as if he has the brain of a senile rabbit.

One consultation with Dr. Marvin and Bob believes he's found his savior, though what we've seen is the classic brush-off of the king to the worm. But Bob, though seemingly an exemplar of the meek who will never inherit squat, has secret strengths. His main weapon is his indefatigable capacity to irritate, as irrigated by a complete lack of shame. He's so horrible that people simply yield to him and, in no time, he has conned his way to New Hampshire where Dr. Marvin and his perfect family are about to have a perfect vacation, whether they like it or not.

Bob, a blithe psychopath, finds his talents provoked by the doctor; without a choate plan, he manages to charm and swindle and dazzle his way into the doctor's life until there's nothing left of it for the doctor. He's crazy but he's charming and the movie is astute enough to acknowledge how much more important charm is than sanity in today's mondo-weirdo world.

Moreover, Bob's interaction with the doctor's family has the magic effect of curing him: He absorbs the family's health into his own head while withdrawing it from the doctor's head. Near clinical madness with a sense of rage and isolation, the doctor finally tumbles to an absurd murder plot, not the movie's strongest moment; Bob's innocence protects him, of course.

Murray is very funny in the early going when his irritation-shtick is allowed full play; when he turns doughily benign in the late going, he's much less interesting. Dreyfuss is playing a stereotype rather than a part, but now and then he has a moment of startling pathos as his family is seized from him. The movie is somehow never as funny as it wants to be, even as it refuses to face its central darkness. Like Bob, it smiles a lot but doesn't say nearly enough.

'What About Bob?'

Starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss.

Directed by Frank Oz.

Released by Touchstone.

Rated PG.

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