Essays · Movies

‘What About Bob?’ is a Comedic Critique of the Mental Health Care System

Thirty years later, this Bill Murray comedy is as relevant as ever.
What About Bob
Buena Vista Pictures
By  · Published on May 17th, 2021

Frank Oz’s What About Bob? (1991) opens with Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) chanting “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,” in a shaky and neurotic voice. The sentiment of the words is hilariously juxtaposed with an outrageous mountain of prescription pills, two diffusers blasting calming air into his room like a hostile fog machine, and a giant instructional poster on how to successfully perform CPR.

As an opening scene, this immediately sets the tone for a lively romp that does nothing more than poke fun at an uptight man in a lighthearted way. What follows, however, is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the mentally ill, and a scathing critique of the shortcomings of the American mental health care system. 

Bob Wiley is not a young man, and his dealings with his anxiety are routine enough for the audience to infer that he has been struggling with it for the majority of his life. His excited reaction to his new psychiatrist, Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), is also enough to suggest that this feeling of relief is novel to him.

So, when Leo goes on vacation with his family directly after his first visit with Bob, it is disorienting enough for Bob that it sends him into a full-on panic. He tries everything he can to see Leo while he’s on vacation. First, he calls him and is quickly rejected. Then, he gets a stranger to pretend she is his sister on a payphone, which enrages Leo. Finally, he pretends to be a cop and fakes his own death. This disguise is enough for the telephone operators to disclose Leo’s vacation address.

Part of what makes a successful comedy is a continuous exaggeration of actions, and What About Bob? has no shortage of those. And, while this sequence is undeniably funny, Bob’s actions can be interpreted in one of two ways. The first, and more obvious, interpretation, sees Bob as a pitiful neurotic with separation anxiety. The second sees him as someone desperately attempting to navigate a broken health care system.

The sheer drama and absurdity of the sequence in which Bob tracks down Leo reflect the fact that good health care is difficult to come by. And, in a time when people are encouraged by hospitals to start GoFundMes to raise money for their massive medical bills, the thirty-year-old What About Bob? is more timely than ever. Indeed, it is funny to watch Bill Murray impersonate a police officer. What’s less funny is the fact that the only way he can get some semblance of attention from his psychiatrist is by pretending he committed suicide.

What About Bob? needed to be a comedy. If it were a drama, it would have been difficult to properly emphasize the ridiculousness of the health care crisis, and how difficult it is to really advocate for yourself, as Bob is forced to. Part of what is funny about the film, admittedly, is the way people react to Bob. In one scene, Bob boards a bus to track down Leo. When he gets off the bus, the rest of the passengers erupt in applause, inferring that he was so impossible to coexist with for a couple of hours that his very absence is worth celebrating. In another, he steps outside his apartment and immediately collapses on the ground. Instead of helping him, people look at him like he’s an annoyance to their existence. 

When Bob finally makes his way to Leo’s vacation home, the doctor finds him impossible to shake. This is, in part, because of Bob’s persistence, but it’s also because Leo’s family genuinely likes him. Leo’s wife, Fay (Julie Hagerty), takes pity on him, and Leo’s son, Siggy (Charlie Korsmo), and daughter, Anna (Kathryn Erbe), find a kindred spirit in him while their dad is largely emotionally absent from their lives. 

Because of this, Bob slowly comes out of his shell and overcomes his anxiety for what we can only presume is the first time in his life. Anna encourages him to go sailing, and, even though he insists on being tied to the mast the whole time, he still does it. By the time he has been staying with the Marvins for a mere couple of days, his confidence has soared so high that he has no trouble appearing on television with Leo for an interview with Good Morning America. And he ends up stealing the show.

Given his reaction to Bob thus far, it is unsurprising when Leo is unhappy with his patient’s newfound media success. Leo subsequently takes drastic measures and attempts to commit Bob to a psychiatric ward, discarding him to a place where he should not be. When it becomes clear that Bob doesn’t belong there and is released, Leo straps him to a chair adorned with explosives in an attempt to kill him. Bob manages to escape, though — and perhaps worse than that, he claims that this murder attempt was the thing that finally cured him. 

The Leo character is perhaps even more interesting to study than Bob. If he is meant to represent the practice of psychiatry as a whole, it is not a flattering portrayal. Leo is someone who is frustrated by his patient asking for help, as well as by his patient making progress. More likely, though, is that What About Bob? did not intend to paint psychiatrists or people with mental illnesses in a negative light.

Rather, the desperation that builds up in Bob, matched with the frustration that builds up in Leo, mirrors how difficult the current systems in place have made it for patients and doctors to properly communicate. For Bob, the issue is that the only way that he can really get noticed in a system that values money over patients is to act crazy. For Leo, the issue is that he is not given enough resources to properly care for Bob.

Mental health professionals are overworked, and when they go on vacation, there may not be anywhere else for their patients to turn. Also, these professionals are put under stress as the only persons who can properly empathize with people with mental illnesses, in a society that readily ridicules them. If we could all take the time to watch movies like What About Bob? and realize what a tragic comedy it really is, the world would likely be much better for it.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.