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.