I have written about the influence of Frank Tashlin before, but in 1990 his influence couldn’t have been more heavily felt than in the films What About Bob? and Clifford (though both films were slated for release in 1991, Clifford would not show in theatres until 1994). Tashlin’s work with Jerry Lewis seems to be the key jumping off point for these two films stylistically. However, my primary concern will be What About Bob?, saving a more in-depth analysis of Clifford for my “forgotten films” series.
Frank Oz’s film What About Bob? barrows heavily from the classic comedies of not just Jerry Lewis, but of Red Skelton’s films Neptune’s Daughter (Buzzell, 1949) and Texas Carnival (Walters, 1951). Like the Lewis and Skelton characters in these films Bill Murray’s character of Bob functions as the catalyst of all the narrative’s action, a man-child if you will, whose naïve ignorance and self-serving behavior antagonizes a character of authority (in this case the Richard Dreyfuss character Dr. Leo Martin). The key narrative device of What About Bob? and its predecessors are that the man-child protagonist’s half-witted actions are somehow responsible for resolving the problems of the supporting characters. For instance, it is Red Skelton’s problem of mistaken identity that brings Esther Williams and Howard Keel together in Texas Carnival as much as Bob’s “fun and sensitive” presence gives a new sense of structure to the otherwise dysfunctional and discontented family of Dr. Martin.
The Tashlin and Lewis influence on What About Bob? can be found in the art design of the film. The picture perfect environment of the grounds in Tashlin’s The Disorderly Orderly (1964) are reflected in Frank Oz’s locations in What About Bob? in Dr. Martin’s perfect little house, the ivory white asylum, and the well manicured grounds of the entire town (beautifully photographed by Michael Ballhaus). Just as the chaos instigated by Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly contrasts to comic effect with his “perfect” environment so does the wake of destruction left by Bob juxtapose with his surroundings. This contrast is only effective when the actors play their parts to high camp, consider the caricature nature of both Murray and Dreyfuss’ performances.
Where, in other genres, such performances could ruin a film, in Frank Oz’s very specific world of What About Bob? such bold choices make perfect sense and even pass as believable. A part of this believability can be accounted for by the fact that Bob so obviously suffers from a myriad of psychological conditions. This simple implication of mental illness is more than adequate, for better or for worse, to explain Bob’s behavior (a tremendous performance by Murray heavily indebted to Jerry Lewis). The other two reasons caricature is acceptable are directly linked to the character of Dr. Martin. At first, Dr. Martin appears to be an unflattering satire of psychoanalysts. But as Bob continues to push himself into Dr. Martin’s life, his behavior becomes more and more exaggerated, eventually matching Bob’s but in direct opposition in so far as content and motivation are concerned. Secondly, Dr. Martin’s family is so eager to except Bob, just as the locals of Dr. Martin’s vacation spot are. This willingness to accept Bob suggests to the audience that they too embrace the character, focusing their attentions on the positive effects his presence has over the negative.
To reinforce this acceptance of comical artifice Oz has arranged the film so that as Bob’s behavior becomes more acceptable, Dr. Martin’s behavior becomes more and more bizarre. There are the big moments like Dr. Martin’s meltdown after his Good Morning America interview, his car troubles, and the attempted murder of Bob that standout as part of the opposition I mentioned above. But more disturbing are the little reveals about the Dr. Martin character peppered throughout the second act of the film. First, we learn that Dr. Martin bought an elderly couple’s dream house out from under them. This point isn’t particularly psychotic on its own, but does suggest a streak of selfishness. The primary reveal of note is that Dr. Martin and his family each have a hand puppet of their likeness, which Dr. Martin employs to casually reprimand or at other times psycho analyze his family. This suggests Dr. Martin is a career obsessed control freak, a point Oz establishes to use as motivation for Dr. Martin’s meltdown on television later in the film.
What About Bob?, upon close examination, is a very disturbing film with an almost terrifying premise. Bob, Dr. Martin’s patient, fakes his suicide, impersonates a cop and then, after obtaining Dr. Martin’s address, travels to where Dr. Martin is living. Bob doesn’t leave it at that, he stalks Dr. Martin until enough chance encounters with Dr. Martin’s family enable him to remain close to Dr. Martin while at the same time enjoying the family connections he needs (a point made by Dr. Martin during his interview with Bob at the start of the film). Of course this sociopathic behavior becomes the stuff of comedy in Frank Oz’s hands just as it does in Paul Flaherty’s hands in the case of Clifford.
What About Bob? and Clifford, along with Barry Levinson’s Toys (1992), represent a trend in American family films that can be seen as a direct reaction to the films of John Hughes and similarly sentimental films that dominated the same niche during the eighties. What About Bob? attempts to make the film more adult both in theme and in content. The film focuses, thematically speaking, on the possibilities of fatherhood as a kind of psychological trap (a perspective also propagated by Clifford). In this scenario the father is the victim of his own well-intentioned ignorance, forced to learn some painful lessons at the hands of our simpleton protagonist. In terms of content, What About Bob? is full of humor pertaining to psychology and parenting that would be lost on children, and maybe even a few adults. But it is a balance between all these elements rather than an imbalance that prevent the film from ever feeling like a genuine family film like say John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). This accounts for the small number of films that were made following this archetype. Yet as a film, in terms of narrative structure and the clarity of its message, What About Bob? is the most successful film of its kind, even if it doesn’t feel like a family film. It marks the beginning of the most prolific period of Frank Oz’s career and the beginning of a series of boxoffice flops for Bill Murray.