Bill Murray has faltered in his last few pictures, so it’s a pleasure to see him rediscover his comic gusto — at least, for about 45 minutes — in What About Bob? Looking blobbier than ever (his puppyish features seem to be shrinking into his head), Murray plays Bob Wiley, a Manhattan nerd who’s such a bundle of anxieties and phobias that the simple act of leaving his apartment becomes a major assault on his sanity. This is a man who can’t touch an elevator button without a protective tissue, who’s afraid that if a bathroom isn’t available his bladder will burst, who fakes cardiac arrest to convince himself he’s healthy. (If he’s just pretending, he can’t really be sick!)
Desperate, he gets an appointment with Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), a noted Manhattan psychiatrist who’s about to take his family on the traditional August vacation. Bob is sure he’s found a savior. Convinced that he can’t survive an entire month on his own, he hunts down Dr. Marvin at his lovely summer home on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee and proceed to make a clinging pest of himself. Murray’s performance begins as a droll piece of comic masochism. He makes Bob such a pathetically whiny mess that we can easily understand how he’d drive a psychiatrist crazy. At the same time, Murray is sly enough to hint that the real reason Bob has tailed Dr. Marvin | all the way to New Hampshire has less to do with his phobias than with the insatiable, neurotic curiosity so many people have about their shrinks’ private lives.
What About Bob? begins as a rambunctious satire. But as Marvin’s family begins to take a weird shine to Bob, it turns into little more than a pleasant one-joke movie — a kind of big-budget Green Acres, in which the ultrarational psychiatrist ends up seeming more crazy than anyone around him. Director Frank Oz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) shows too much restraint, and the script, by Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), pulls a major punch: Bob’s phobias disappear almost overnight he turns into the classic Bill Murray schmoozer — and so the tension between Bob and the shrink loses its comic edge. Dr. Marvin just ends up seeming like a prig. Dreyfuss has his moments as the vain, overcontrolled doc, who’s more interested in hawking his new self-help book than in helping his patients. But the role relies too much on the actor’s usual nattering shtick. What About Bob? is just funny enough to make you wish it had been wilder and less predictable. B-