Potential Double Feature #2: What About Bob? (1991) and In & Out (1997)


Sorry folks for the non-presence lately. I’ve been getting a lot of hours at my interim summer job. But my plans are to get those final two Irrational Hatred Towards Film Characters installments up and to do a quick rundown of the highlights from my favorite 1940’s films from the 43 seen for my decade viewing ritual. Hopefully an actual review will sprout up in the coming weeks as well.

While my first pair of films are not among my very favorites, these two are. What About Bob? and In & Out have been in my life for a very long time. Viewings (both passive and active) for each total in the hundreds. They are two of my all-time favorite comedies.

What About Bob? (1991)
IMDB Summary: A successful psychiatrist loses his mind after one of his most dependent patients, a highly manipulative obsessive-compulsive, tracks him down during his family vacation.

A comedy with accessible dark streaks, What About Bob? features what In consider to be Bill Murray’s best comedic performance. He takes a break from his wise-ass routine to dole out a manipulative and dependent childlike basket case who genuinely wants to belong. Bob Wiley never feels like a schtick; we immediately buy him as a character. Murray gives Bob such a genuinely endearing quality that we can’t help but love the relentlessly pestering fella. The same cannot quite be said for Richard Dreyfuss as Dr. Leo Marvin, who has some killer line deliveries in what starts out as an arrogant caricatured psychiatrist, and what ends with a bit too much one-note frenzy.

What makes the wider arc of the film is the way Marvin’s family and the audience are sucked into Bob’s seemingly dysfunctional worldview. Towards the end, the way he sees and handles life gradually make sense to us. His 100% commitment to Leo’s dismissive “Take a Vacation From Your Problems” advice seems like a healthy life choice because it works for Bob.  As Marvin unspools, Bob becomes more firmly and permanently placed in the hearts of the Marvin family. Bob may have his fair share of mental problems, but they stem from his debilitating fear of the world around him, not from an inadequacy found in Bob’s comfort with himself. The role-reversal that takes place is somewhat ingenious as Bob is cherished by the Marvin’s while Leo slips into a lapse of insanity.

In & Out (1997)
IMDB Summary: A midwestern teacher questions his sexuality after a former student makes a comment about him at the Academy Awards.

Paul Rudnick, playwright and screenwriter of such films as Addams Family Values and Jeffrey (based on his play), sweetly satirizes gay intolerance and lampoons celebrity in what is one of the more underrated comedies of any decade. Kline’s Howard Brackett desperately tries to hold onto his ordered life as he approaches his impossibly overdue marriage to Joan Cusack’s Emily (one of the fewer comedic performances to be nominated for an Oscar). When former student Cameron Drake (played perfectly by Matt Dillon) wins an Oscar for playing a gay soldier. and cites his gay teacher as inspiration, he outs a man who isn’t out to anyone including himself. What follows is a jaunty journey of identity chaos that pokes fun at small-town scandal and the absurdity of homosexual prejudice. It may seem safe, but for an industry still almost entirely unwilling to tell mainstream homosexual stories, a mainstream comedy (written by a gay man no less) taking on the subject 15 years ago remains impressive.

Watching Them Together:

The first obvious connection between the two films is that they were both directed by Frank Oz. If I had seen these films for the first time as an adult, I would probably have wished for the two to be edgier and to push themselves a bit more in both tone and risk. As it stands, Oz presents them under a very accessible but zany tentpole.

Our protagonists are in a way, opposites. Bob Wiley may suffer from crippling anxiety, but at heart he seems at ease with himself as a personality. He just wants to learn how to function with some normalcy in the real world. Howard Brackett is perfectly at ease with the small-town environment that surrounds him, but his repression as well as Drake’s comment results in an identity crisis that throws his entire universe completely out of whack. He uses denial so order can be maintained and shields himself from the townspeople, who collectively have had their world shaken by what should be, in a reasonable universe, an important private epiphany and a public non-event.

In some ways, the last-ditch efforts to maintain order aligns Howard Brackett with Leo Marvin. Each has their world just so; Howard uses denial as a cushion for his safe and neutered future life with Emily, and Leo with the dictatorial no-fun zone atmosphere he inflicts on his family. The difference is that Howard is our protagonist and Leo our antagonist. Cameron Drake upsets Howard’s order and Bob upsets Leo’s.

The two musical scores, by Miles Goodman and Marc Shaiman respectively, are very prominent and constant, each tracking the progression of manic outbursts and realizations.

Towards the end, I will admit that each make a misstep despite these being two of my favorite films. As What About Bob? turns its focus entirely to Dreyfuss in its final scenes, it loses something without Murray properly buoying it. The very end feels far too patched up for my taste, and I wish it had the audacity to follow through and commit to a darker ending. In & Out employs that cliched climax of the in-the-nick-of-time resolution in front of a big crowd. The scene is moving and the circumstances make the situation more realistic than most of its kind, but it goes on for far too long and its execution is too saccharine. But as the end credits roll as the cast joyously dances to “YMCA”, all is forgiven.

Did I mention that each film has brilliant dialogue exchanges and top-notch comedic acting? Kevin Kline may not be dealing with the in-your-face pathos of Otto West, but I would argue his work here is on par with his Oscar-winning A Fish Called Wanda role. The Glenn Close cameo as well as the Oscar clip reel from Cameron Drake’s award-winning performance in To Serve and Protect has made me scream and cry with laughter more times than I could count. Tom Selleck is delightful in an unorthodox supporting role and Joan Cusack and Matt Dillon, as I said before, are tops. In What About Bob? there are certain scenes that remain classics including Bob and Leo’s Good Morning America appearance, Leo and daughter Anna speaking with their representative puppets, Bob and son Sigmund goofing off at night, etc. And so many exchanges between Bob and Leo that are pitch-perfect in line delivery, not least including:

Dr. Leo Marvin: Are you married?
Bob Wiley: I’m divorced.
Dr. Leo Marvin: Would you like to talk about that?
Bob Wiley: There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves him.
Dr. Leo Marvin: [pause] I see. So, what you’re saying is that even though you are an almost-paralyzed, multiphobic personality who is in a constant state of panic, your wife did not leave you, you left her because she… liked Neil Diamond?

This double feature choice takes on a more personal tack. I’m pretty picky when it comes to comedies. Most of the films that have been in my life since adolescence are comedies and they are the films I am familiar with more than any others. This is because these are the types of films I had seen enough times to comfortably put on in the background on a daily basis in my teens into what is now my mid-twenties. Nowadays I drift towards darker fare, and comedies that stick still come along in the future, but not very often. Films like these two, Bringing Up Baby, Clue, Dumb and Dumber, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and many others ultimately hold a singular place within my personal canon and my vast love for the medium.

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