The Story Behind ‘What About Bob?’: An Ensemble Masterpiece Disguised As A Bill Murray Vehicle

May 17 marks 25 years since What About Bob? was released, and if you mention it in a crowd, I’m willing to bet half the people present will tell you they love it. It was in heavy cable rotation for years and it was such a childhood staple for me that I can vividly picture my mom slapping her knee during the scene where Bill Murray is making a fuss over Julie Haggerty’s food. (It may have been extra cathartic for her; she was a bad cook.) The “Don’t Hassle Me I’m Local” shirt, Bill Murray acting 10 years old, Richard Dreyfuss being driven nuts — it’s… lovable. It’s one of those movies most rarely give a second thought, because it doesn’t need one. Oh yeah, What About Bob?, that was a good one, right?

I submit to you this: What About Bob? is one of the strangest widely beloved films ever made. The jaunty Miles Goodman score tells you it’s a light family comedy, but just beneath what was clearly the intended tone — and the way we receive it, almost as a matter of good faith — it’s a perplexing combination of elements.

Let’s just point out the objectively true: This is a PG-rated family comedy about a charming sociopath who drives his psychiatrist insane, steals his family, has sex with his sister, and blows up his house. That’s the whole movie. Did I mention the sociopath is the hero? What About Bob? takes such glee in torturing the psychiatrist character that you’d almost think it was financed by the Church of Scientology. (It’s not, as far as I can tell, and I did look.)

On the surface, What About Bob? certainly has the trappings of a family comedy from the era. The story has a clear moral, and that moral is that living a nice life in the suburbs with your family is the meaning of life. See also: City Slickers, Doc Hollywood… both of which came out that same summer. Bob Wiley wasn’t crazy! He just needed to get out of that dirty city, get a little fresh air, and meet a nice lady!

It’s actually weird to go back and watch movies from the late Reagan/Bush years and see how aggressively they sold suburban bliss, as if not hearing “family is the most important thing!” every five seconds would tank the economy, rebuild the Berlin Wall, and retroactively lose the Cold War. Happiness, according to ’80s movies, is the end of Back to the Future, where if you could go back in time and re-do the past exactly the way you wanted, you’d end up living in the same house in the same charming subdivision, but with more vacation time, a nicer car, and now your a-hole neighbor has to wax it for you. But I digress.

I’m not saying What About Bob? is any kind of dark parable for the pathos underlying the affluent America suburbia, nor any kind of serious critique of psychiatry. But it is a movie where the sheen of “cute family comedy” is less a mission statement than a way to hold together a lot of strange and disparate ideas. It’s a mess, and yet it works, even though it shouldn’t. Hey, maybe it is about family.

A Metaphor For Bill Murray’s Entire Persona?

In What About Bob?, Bill Murray does horrible things for an entire movie. He latches onto his doctor, tries to get him to reveal where he’s vacationing, and when he doesn’t, he fakes his own suicide and tricks a sweet-natured switchboard operator (played by Marcella Lowery, aka Donovan McNabb’s mother in those Chunky Soup commercials) into revealing the location of Dr. Marvin’s vacation home in Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H. How many people would’ve gotten fired because of Bob Wiley in real life? At least 10.

On the bus ride there, the other passengers are so annoyed by Bob that they move away from his seat.

When he gets off? They cheer! They’ve only known Bob Wiley for a few hours and they’re already openly contemptuous right to his face. F*ck you, crazy guy! Take your phobias somewhere else!

Even the Marvin family, the first and only people in this movie world to treat Bob Wiley as anything but a nuisance, when they finally, politely, ask Bob to maaaybe find another place to crash for a night — on account of he’s driven their patriarch into a catatonic state — what does he do? He guilt trips them. He makes the painfully polite lady (Airplane‘s Julie Hagerty) tell him he has to go. And he forces her to say it twice. “You… you want me to go?… Really?”

What About Bob? never leaves any doubt that Bob is an insane nightmare person, and yet we cheer him on for it, solely because he’s Bill Murray. The film is so transparent about this, you wonder how it could’ve possibly worked on paper. There’s no moral justification for anything Bob does other than “well, it’s cute when he does it.”

And why does it work? It’s blatant wish fulfillment. “What if Bill Murray invaded your life and made all of the boring things interesting?”

It might be a metaphor for Bill Murray’s entire persona. He’s the guy who gets away with things no one else would, simply by being him. Would it have been cute had it been anyone else who, when pressed to hire an assistant because he was so bad at communicating while filming Groundhog Day (a much better movie than What About Bob?), hired a deaf-mute who only spoke sign language? (It is funny, even knowing that Bill Murray and Harold Ramis didn’t speak for 21 years afterwards.)

While shooting What About Bob?, Murray famously threw producer and co-writer Laura Ziskin into a lake. “Playfully,” she said.

Bill Murray has a tendency to maintain a kind of aloof distance from movies he’s in. He’s famous for skating just above the script, in such a way that he can be in a terrible movie and have none of it stick to him. Yet What About Bob? might be one of his most committed roles. I get the sense the real Murray is a lot more like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day than Bob Wiley. Where Wiley is inherently phobic, Bill Murray is brazen, stealing women out of the gallery during golf tournaments and faux ballroom dancing with them in sand traps (this one in particular happened to a friend of mine’s mother in the late ’90s). Bill Murray is all guile and slyness. When Bob Wiley manipulates, it’s by accident, like an idiot savant. He’s a mess, but he’s just so fun! What About Bob? is Bill Murray the way the public likes to think of him.

There’s a certain irony to Bill Murray disappearing into the role of a character who’s essentially an analogue for the Bill Murray persona. It’s like he’s playing a character who is himself and may not know it.

But then, after I don’t kill you, you’ll show up again. And you’ll do something else to make everyone in my life think you are wonderful and I’m a schmuck. But I’m not a schmuck, Bob, and I’m not going to let you breeze into town and take my family away from me, just because you’re crazy enough to be fun.

What Kind Of Movie Is This?

Even now it’s tough to know exactly what What About Bob? is, and it must’ve been even tougher without the benefit of hindsight. Is Bob Wiley a sociopath hero? Is the message that psychiatrists are bad? That Dreyfuss’ Leo Marvin deserves all of this because he took his family for granted? Is there a message?

What About Bob? wouldn’t be what it is if all the actors weren’t bringing their A-game, but there was no consensus on what they were bringing their A-game to.

As director Frank Oz told IGN back in 2010:

A tough, tough movie to shoot. 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. […] I don’t control the set… I kind of hope that, like Jim [Henson, Oz’s mentor] taught me, I guide. Sometimes you had to get a little hard, but it was a tense time because Bill [Murray]… and the writer and the producer… and Richard Dreyfuss… and me… and Disney (although less so Disney, I must say they were more supportive)… all had our view on how to make the script better.

The DVD doesn’t have a commentary track and there actually aren’t a lot of interviews with What About Bob?‘s principals discussing the making of the film. You get the sense that it’s an experience they’d all just as soon forget.

Here’s Richard Dreyfuss talking with The A.V. Club in 2009:

Funny movie. 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.

Murray, for his part, didn’t deny the feud. Here he is in Entertainment Weekly in 1993:

It’s entertaining — everybody knows somebody like that Bob guy. (Richard Dreyfuss and I) didn’t get along on the movie particularly, but it worked for the movie. I mean, I drove him nuts, and he encouraged me to drive him nuts.

Notice they both bring up — unprompted — the issue of who the audience is supposed to relate to? I still don’t know. Bob Wiley is clingy and obnoxious, Leo Marvin is uptight and pompous, and apparently capable of murder. Having seen the finished product, I don’t think it’s too conspiracy-minded to say that who the audience was going identify with was probably a big topic of argument.

Here’s Frank Oz speaking to Ain’t It Cool in 2007:

C: Now this was another film that I’ve heard was a tense set, but once again the results were pretty strong. That was a very well-received movie.

FO: It was incredibly difficult, incredibly full of tension.

C: And this is an example of a film whose problems you don’t take all the blame for.

FO: No, I don’t. I’ll take the blame when I deserve the blame. That was a very difficult time. And as much as I don’t like to take blame when I don’t deserve it, I also don’t like to portion blame out. Nevertheless, it was a tense and tough shoot for a million reasons. I was really scared to death that we had a piece of sh*t, because it was so impossible to judge it. I felt I knew what I was doing, but there was this huge sigh of relief when the movie worked.

It’s still hard to judge it. The movie works, but the question of who we’re supposed to identify with, who the film is celebrating, and what our takeaway from it is supposed to be — those may not be questions you care about, but I can guarantee you they kept the producers up at night. It’s a $35 million movie (not chump change in ’91) that’s a family comedy, but also a dark comedy, full of insider-y psychotherapy jokes, that’s nonetheless sort of anti-psychotherapy, with no real hero. I would’ve been worried too.

Incidentally, here’s a little more about that Bill Murray-throwing-the-producer-in-the-lake incident:

Laura Ziskin, the producer of “Spider-Man,” had such a spirited disagreement with Bill Murray during the making of “What About Bob?” that the actor threw her into a lake. Ziskin says the lake toss was playful but much of the argument was not.

“Bill also threatened to throw me across the parking lot and then broke my sunglasses and threw them across the parking lot,” she said. “I was furious and outraged at the time, but having produced a dozen movies, I can safely say it is not common behavior.” [Chicago Tribune, 2003]

It’s a little cheesy to say that “the tension made it a better movie,” but I do think the fact that not even the people making it knew who the good guy was supposed to be makes it more interesting. This is partly why I find the auteur theory so dull. It assumes the artist is some all-powerful deity, and the art a perfectly planned still, rather than a living thing created through a combination of genes and the randomness of nature. Isn’t it much more fun to think of movies as a particular confluence of personalities? To imagine how different they’d be if a series of events hadn’t lined up just so?

I doubt anyone would’ve worried about who the audience should be identifying with if they’d known how much audiences would enjoy Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss going at each other for its own sake. But would that have worked as well if they’d gotten along better? What if the studio had made them flesh it out more?

Woody Allen was supposed to play Leo Marvin at one point (the studio reportedly was going to offer Allen a deal to direct it). And while Woody Allen definitely reads more “psychoanalyst,” half the fun (to me, anyway) of What About Bob? is Dreyfuss’s combustibility. There’s no way Woody Allen would’ve played Leo Marvin this manic. Dreyfuss’ Marvin is practically a Looney Tunes character by the end of the movie, with Daffy Duck’s rage and Wile E. Coyote’s scheming.

If everyone making What About Bob? had entirely understood What About Bob? I’m not sure it’d be so weirdly watchable.

The Peanut Gallery Effect

What About Bob? director Frank Oz is a former puppeteer who cut his teeth working with Jim Henson (fun fact: Frank Oz voiced and performed Yoda), and when I look at the Guttmans (the married Lake Winnipesaukee diner and store owners who hate Leo Marvin for buying their dream house), it’s pretty clear who they remind me of.

Care to take a guess?

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I’ve written about reaction shots in Revisited before, but there aren’t many movies that squeeze as much comedy out of reactions as What About Bob?. (Another director who makes great use of the peanut gallery effect is Alexander Payne.) They’re so important that the Guttmans are there just for that (along with the running joke of them being inexplicably present for every big plot point, from Siggy’s first dive until the house explodes).

What About Bob?‘s use of the reaction shot goes much further than the Guttmans. Two of the most important scenes are built almost entirely out of them. There’s Siggy’s big dive (fun fact: Charlie Korsmo is a law professor now, with a degree in physics from MIT and a JD from Yale, whose final film role was William Lichter in Can’t Hardly Wait, one of the greatest teen movies ever made):

This scene, probably What About Bob?‘s most schmaltzy-heartwarming, is deceptively complex, shot from at least four perspectives: the Marvins in the house, Anna by the tree, Bob and Siggy on the dock, and the Guttmans in the boat (who are apparently just hanging out in a boat with no fishing poles drinking beer — I want to hang with the Guttmans so bad).

I almost guarantee that this scene would’ve been sort of hokey or even dry on paper, but Oz combines perspectives so well that you want to keep watching, if only to see the actors’ contrasting emotions. The best, and probably the most unique, part is the way he shoots the Guttmans staring, then Dr. Marvin shouting at them, and then cuts back to the Guttmans for that the spine-stiffening reaction shot, which is pure Muppets. I love it so much. And the editing of the entire scene is brilliant.

The other big reaction sequence is Bob and Dr. Marvin on Good Morning America (ignore the YouTube annotations):

There are fewer perspectives in this one, but even more reactions. It’s beyond over the top, and not exactly a show stopper on paper — I especially hate the Bob/Boob joke — but it’s a good representation of how the movie works. It’s about 50 percent Bill Murray going nuts and 50 percent the rest of the cast reacting to him — alternately charmed, repelled, confused, disgusted, infuriated, and back around again, all in the space of a few minutes. Incidentally, I crack up every time Bill Murray says “mashed potatoes and gravy, Marie,” and again when he gets to “horse sense!” Bill Murray has a way of leaning hard on his flat, nasally Chicago vowels for effect, almost like a guitar player bending a string. Come annn, I’m nat a slaaacker!

According to Splitsider, Steven Spielberg spent $250,000 of his own money campaigning to get Murray an Oscar nomination for the role. (It didn’t work — Anthony Hopkins won, playing a much more traditional psychopath in Silence of the Lambs, beating out Warren Beatty, Robin Williams, Nick Nolte, and Robert De Niro.) That would’ve been well deserved, but while What About Bob? is disguised as an odd couple comedy, it’s really an ensemble piece.

One of the hardest parts of acting isn’t just selling your own lines, but reacting when you aren’t talking. I’m not sure there’s a single actor in What About Bob? who misses even a single beat. (The only sour note I can think of is Bob’s previous psychiatrist looking directly into the camera saying “free!”, but that’s more the director’s fault.) From Murray on down to the Guttmans, and even the switchboard operators, they’re all close to perfect. Charlie Korsmo might be the most believable character of all, and he didn’t have that stupid hair helmet all child actors have nowadays.

Sorry, I don’t want to start ranting about child actors needing haircuts again, my doctor says it’s bad for my blood pressure.

The point is, I think What About Bob? is still interesting to watch because there’s an ineffability to the humor, where you don’t entirely understand why it’s working. It’s not that What About Bob? doesn’t have a formula, it just kind of has a bunch of them at the same time. And it takes ballsy producers to let that stand without trying to over-explain it. It was allowed to be compelling in a somewhat mysterious way. We don’t necessarily have to identify with any one of the characters, just interested in the odd ways that they bounce off of each other.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.