Small, Baby Steps: The World According to Bill Murray
What we can all learn from one of the most prominent men in comedy
“Are you afraid of death?” said a little preadolescent voice.
The man’s eyes grew large, alarmed. He pauses for a moment before answering, “Yes.”
Both are tucked in bed, at a summer vacation home in New Hampshire, the scene of a 1991 Bill Murray film called What About Bob? whose cast includes Richard Dreyfuss and Julie Hagerty. The boy in the scene is Siggy, the son of a successful psychiatrist named Dr. Leo Marvin, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who, unbeknownst to him, agreed to take on Bill Murray’s character — Bob Wiley — as a patient without knowing just how needy he was.
But before we can get to the point where Siggy asks Bob an existential question about death, let’s take a step back and learn more about Bob Wiley, or specifically the way Bill Murray portrayed him.
Bob Wiley is an everything-phobe. He’s afraid of germs, of going outside, of getting in elevators, of death, of getting Tourette’s syndrome, of losing his beloved fish. Just about everything that exists in the world outside of his apartment, he’s afraid of. “I’m fine as long as I’m in my apartment,” he says during the first meeting between him and Dr. Marvin.
Dr. Marvin is what you would call a “typical psychiatrist” of the day. He just published a self-help book called “Baby Steps” to guide people towards obtaining a better, more fulfilled life, and he’s about to promote his book on national television. Of course, he’s also looking forward to summer vacation with his family in New Hampshire. So he told Bob that they will see each other in his office in a month.
Of course, Bob doesn’t get it. He’s so distraught at the fact that Dr. Marvin is leaving for a month that he tries every effort he can to see him. Much to his chagrin, Dr. Marvin finds Bob appearing at the town where he vacations, and later on, at his vacation home. To him, Bob is barging in on his family time. To Bob, he just needs someone to talk to, because he’s so afraid of everything. He decided that he has to see Dr. Marvin, no matter what.
What appears after Bob shows up at Dr. Marvin’s vacation home is his family’s interest towards Bob. They see him as someone who’s harmless and fun, while Dr. Marvin becomes more agitated by Bob’s presence. “I don’t see patients when I’m on vacation,” he says. “How many times do I have to tell you?!”
Despite his resistance, Marvin’s family invites Bob to spend the night after having invited him to dinner where he oohs and aahhs over Fay (Marvin’s wife)’s cooking. As a rainstorm surged outside, Bob lays on a twin bed in the same room as Siggy, and that is where Siggy asks Bob the question about death.
“I am going to die. We are all going to die,” said Siggy. This phrase only made Bob feel more alarmed. Then they start talking about fears, especially Bob’s fears about getting Tourette’s syndrome. Moments later, they both started jumping on their beds, shouting obscenities simply because they thought it was funny.
This scene, along with many other scenes in the movie (in particular, the one where Dr. Marvin realizes his children thinks he’s uptight) demonstrates several important lessons about life, and how to become a better person.
You see, Bob is incredibly neurotic, with a multitude of problems, mainly phobias. The world of treating psychiatric disorders, including phobias, have been around for decades, but it’s not until this movie came along in the early 90s that mental health became a forefront for discussion. Now, many years later, we know that Bob’s behavior is not out of the ordinary — many people have phobias, and a lot of us need help. Many of us are simply trying to survive in a chaotic world, where we’re forced to embrace things we’re not ready for.
Perhaps the most important lesson one can learn from this movie is this — taking baby steps is important to becoming a better person. We can see it in Bob’s attempts at integrating with Dr. Marvin’s family. He’s terrified of everything but he told himself to follow Dr. Marvin’s advice — “Take a vacation from your problems!” literally.
What he doesn’t realize, and what Marvin’s family does, is the fact that Marvin himself is a stingy, unbendable rule follower. He prefers to separate himself completely from his work while he’s on vacation, and the fact that one of his patients followed him all the way up to his vacation home infuriated him immensely. Throughout the movie, you can see that the tension builds up to the point where everyone is having fun with Bob except him.
Bill Murray’s character, and Bill Murray himself, exemplifies the fact that life is short and that one should have fun, be open to new opportunities and possibilities.
In other Bill Murray movies that I’ve loved including Meatballs and Groundhog Day, there exists an element of surprise, of fun. Murray plays characters that are quintessentially him from another lifetime. In some ways, he’s a big kid stuck in a man’s body, with all the emotions that one might have growing up, all encompassed in his acting roles for these movies. Because he can be so blasé about certain things, it becomes funny and endearing. His movies help us question the meaning of life — should you be flexible or stick to the rules? That, I believe, is the most important lesson of What About Bob?
What about taking baby steps? Life is hard, and everything is scary. But baby steps can help.