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‘What About Bob?’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 17, 1991

Sometimes a movie is just a movie, but not in the case of the cheerfully psychoanalytic "What About Bob?" Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss star in this hilarious brain-teaser about a patient who suffers acute separation anxiety when his psychiatrist goes on vacation. For all the times patients have paid $115 for 45 minutes of "What do you think it means?" this is sweet revenge.

Murray is the driving force as the multi-phobic Bob, and Dreyfuss is driven to his wits' end as his pompous new doctor. A farce in the tradition of "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," the story turns on the amiable neurotic's ability to insinuate himself into the hearts of Dr. Marvin's neglected family -- son Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), daughter Anna (Kathryn Erbe) and wife Fay (Julie Hagerty).

The doctor is an emotionally barren man whose obsession with his work has distanced him from his loved ones. As the author of a new self-help book called "Baby Steps," he is even more self-absorbed than usual. He's scheduled an interview with "Entertainment Tonight" during the family vacation at idyllic Lake Winnipesaukee. The flowers are arranged, the pantry stocked, everything is perfect, when along comes Bob. Like ALF, he's the thing that won't leave.

Though director Frank Oz takes his own sweet time in setting up the premise, the funny business between Bob and the Marvins is well worth the early idle. The doctor treats his family as if they were patients, but the childlike Bob can approach the kids as neurotic equals. When the teenage Anna confides that she feels ill at ease at social gatherings, Bob counters with his constant fear that his bladder might explode.

Written by "Dead Poets Society's" Tom Schulman, the screenplay borrows the pixilated myth from "Harvey" that crazy is nicer than cured. Even though he is agoraphobic, claustrophobic, hypochondriac, Bob is better off than his psychiatrist because he is capable of expressing his needs. Or as Bob himself puts it to Dr. Marvin: "Give me, give me, give me, I need, I need, I need."

A star less affable than Dreyfuss would turn us against the character, but he gives Dr. Marvin the vulnerability of "Down and Out's" ambitious hanger manufacturer. And when it comes to playing opposite a rapacious, natural-born comic like Murray, he isn't about to relinquish his share of the screen. Still, Murray has our empathy, our sympathy and the advantage of just plain looking funny, like a puddle of lumpy oatmeal.

Above all else, "What About Bob?" addresses the way many a patient feels when his psychiatrist has the nerve to go away without giving a thought to his problems. Perhaps it is just one desperate cosmic cry for help. Then again, maybe it's a threat.

"What About Bob?" is rated PG for mild profanity.

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