The best thing about What About Bob? is that there is no moral. I have always appreciated that the movie didn’t try to be something it wasn’t. Sure, you can make one up if you want to. Something about how we are all sick in our own ways, or judgment of others coming around on us, but that isn’t really what the film says. Plenty of people in the film are portrayed as relatively “normal”. Bob is certainly not portrayed as a saint, nor Leo Marvin a complete monster. The movie does not demand a “right” or “wrong” way of being, nor does it suggest what those are. What About Bob? asks a simple question, how would a person who believes he has solved mental health respond to being pushed beyond his limits. The answer, as so many of us know, is poorly.
30 years ago next week, What about Bob? entered theaters with a pretty strong pedigree. Both Bill Murray and Julie Hagerty were viewed as comedy icons already (Caddyshack (and a lot more) for Murray and Airplane! for Hagerty) and Richard Dreyfuss had long established his star credentials (Jaws etc.). This movie was expected to be a success, but it really wasn’t a big money maker. It netted less than 30 million from the box office (and when you factor in publicity, adverts, distribution and more, that number would have been quite a bit smaller). That isn’t where the story ended of course. What about Bob? became a VHS darling, quickly entering the realm of films like The Princess Bride, The Goonies, or Big Trouble In Little China. It moved into the popular lexicon that I experienced growing up, with phrases like “Baby Steps”, “I want, I want, I need, I need, gimme gimme,” or “Look at me, I’m sailing” becoming popular in jokes for the movie’s many followers. It is now viewed as one of the best comedies of the 90’s.
What About Bob? skewered the many trite elements of Psychiatry and psychology in the 80’s, poking fun at some of the outlandish therapy approaches that the elite of the practice proposed. It took on the rapidly expanding pop psychology of the era. No one should confuse the work of Dr. Leo Marvin with that of an actual psychiatrist or psychologist (remember, there really isn’t a moral to the movie, even one about the “perils” of psychology or psychiatry). Bob’s own struggles with his mental health vacillate wildly throughout the movie, and show no real pattern (and he himself often attempts to add and subtract random conditions as part of the joke). Despite the strong underpinnings and humor derived from all of this, the mental health complex isn’t really the heart of the movie, despite it’s numerous references. The heart of the movie is relational. There are several people who can be viewed as ill in the movie. Bill Murray’s Bob is clearly ill. Dr. Leo Marvin’s neurosis and narcissism are obvious. Even Julie Hagerty’s Fay is clearly an enabler. What makes the film a legend, isn’t just the jokes (though that is the part we remember), what makes it legendary is seeing how people who are ill interact, show love to one another, and the importance of having healthy relationships to persevere through it.
A lot of movies are funny. The best funny movies make you care about the characters you find funny. One of the biggest complaints I see about The Simpsons is that it stopped being good after season 4. The irony is, I find the seasons following season 4 (5-8) to be the absolute funniest. I think the reason for this dichotomy is that around season 4, the show shifted gears from a show that was character driven, to one that is joke driven. For a lot of people, this broke their connection, and, while the jokes are still funny, their desire (and ability) to connect with the characters was lost.
In What About Bob? director Frank Oz and writers Alvin Sargent and Laura Ziskin do a masterful job of helping us keep connected with the characters. That is what sets this apart from being simply funny, to being an all-time great comedy. I think there is a character for almost everyone in this movie. For those type A/introverted people who find chattiness and poor listening to be highly frustrating, Dr. Leo Marvin killing Bob might feel just a little bit OK (wink). For those type B/extroverted people who are tired of everyone being so rigid and angry, Bob’s connection with Lilly (LILLY!) feels like a fair reward for someone who has spent his life as an outcast because he too strongly desires connection. For kids, Ziggy’s existential struggle and Anna’s desire to live a “normal” life feel very real. My perspective on this movie has shifted over time as I went from the Ziggy, to the Anna, to the Bob, to the Dr. Leo Marvin. As strange as that sounds, I find that I see where they are all coming from now, and the movie is even more enjoyable because of that. The jokes land with more authenticity than ever.
While there is still no moral to the movie, all these years later, I find that I understand the reality of the movie more now than I did when I was younger. When I was younger, I believed the movie was about silly characters that were over-the-top and ridiculous. Now as an adult, I feel my own warts and mental health problems much more acutely. With that in my mind, I also see the mental health struggles of others with more understanding and awareness. I realize that the vast majority of people are going through a crisis. Some are obvious and external, but others are deeply private and internal. For those who try to keep their struggles internalized, however, outside forces often conspire to unleash what we try to keep hidden. I have spent most of my adult life trying to hide my depression and anxiety. When my first wife passed away, I couldn’t any more. I went from an internalized and “acceptable” mental health struggle (similar to Dr. Marvin’s internal issues) to more of a Bob-like external struggle that others are aware of. The majority of our society is in a place of mental disarray. Those who are not in an obvious category of mental instability, often find themselves in something of a caretaking role for someone who is. This is its own challenge (as shown repeatedly in the film). This has only grown in the pandemic.
What About Bob? does not offer any real answers to these issues (and it shouldn’t, it’s a comedy), but it does hint at one small solution. Loving those who have mental illness while still maintaining healthy boundaries is a good starting place for those in a caregiver role. While Dr. Marvin ends up needing clinical help (in part because he and his family are unable to maintain healthy boundaries), his family still supports him and he yearns (using grossly ineffective methods) for connection with his children, despite the mistakes he has made. Bob, meanwhile, develops healthier relationships as the film develops and people give him real opportunities to form connection. People with mental illness are rarely violent, despite what the movie might indicate. Mostly, what people with mental health problems need is compassion, connection, and understanding. For those who have mental illness, the film offers another critical hint. You have to be able to recognize and identify what you are struggling with. Dr. Marvin cannot see his own illness because he is fixated on others being unhealthy. Meanwhile, Bob is very aware of his struggle, but not how to solve it. Ultimately, you can’t treat what you can’t acknowledge. Counseling can be so effective because it can help you identify what you can’t see under your own surface.
In this season of suffering for most of us (the pandemic has dramatically escalated mental health issues for many people), we can show one another an increase in compassion and patience while being careful to monitor our own boundaries for safe-keeping. We can also start being more honest with ourselves. Let’s all also stay away from death therapy.