When I get an idea for a Cinematic Chiasmus, I get excited about it because it’s a chance to look at a film in a way that no one has ever done before. A few months ago, the good folks at Latter-day Chiasmus featured one of my Cinematic Chiasmus articles on their Facebook page, and then they asked me to take a look at a certain film to see if it works as a chiasmus. That film is What About Bob?
I had never done anything like that before. I had never tried to analyze a film that I didn’t have a good feeling about. I figured this would be a good example to see if I could actually force this model to work on any film or if it could be objectively shown to fail to work on most films.
I’m going to do something really different this time. Spoiler alert: What About Bob? is not a chiasmus. It has a few parts that match up nicely, but not enough to get anywhere close to a perfect chiasmus structure. And so it winds up looking really weird and disjointed when I try to impose this type of analysis on it. For this reason, I have set up a color coordination for it to show the four ways in which individual scenes match up (or fail to match up):
Green – The two events on both sides of the film match up perfectly.
Red – The event does not correspond with anything else.
Orange – One event matches up with another that’s out of order.
Blue – One event matches up with another that’s on the same side of the chiasmus.
I’ve also included some helpful commentary below many of the points, especially in the first half, to explain my reasoning for my use of the colors and what to expect further on. With all of that said, let’s see how What About Bob? stacks up.
A. The opening credits are played behind Gil the goldfish
This sequence doesn’t really match up with anything else in the film. Gil is certainly present through many of the events that unfold, but I don’t believe we get another close-up of him for the rest of the film, and we don’t see or hear anything of him in the last several scenes or in the epilogue.
B1. Bob demonstrates his neurotic behavior in his apartment and as he leaves it
Let’s be generous and give B to the movie. Bob is acting strange, but he does manage to leave his apartment after some effort. On the flipside, Dr. Marvin is comatose and he finally breaks through his comatose state to scream his objection to Bob marrying his dear sister.
C1. Dr. Marvin inherits Bob as a patient from a fellow psychiatrist who, after hanging up, declares himself “free”
The “free” line does come into play later when Bob and Dr. Marvin shout it for different reasons close to the end, but those don’t take place in the right order.
D1. Bob refuses to go into an elevator and instead takes the stairs, arriving in Leo’s office extremely winded
We see Bob get into an elevator at the end of his office visit, which is the reverse of this scene.
E1. Bob meets Dr. Marvin (who allows Bob to call him Leo) and Bob sees a picture of his family
This corresponds with two later scenes: when Bob briefly runs into Leo’s family in person, and when Leo tells Bob to call him Dr. Marvin in his home.
F1. Bob explains his many psychological problems to Leo and then gains hope that Leo can help him
This matches up nicely with a similar moment on the other side. Dr. Marvin inadvertently sets up a brilliant psychological therapy in the form of a death trap for Bob to literally untangle his problems.
G1. Leo introduces Bob to the concept of “Baby Steps”
“Baby Steps” and “Death Therapy” both spring from Leo’s mind, and they form the basis for bestselling books.
D2. Bob reluctantly leaves the office and then goes into an elevator and screams
I1. Bob calls Betty and briefly gets in touch with Leo at his home on Lake Winnipesaukee
This corresponds with a moment two scenes later when Bob actually goes to visit Betty and makes Leo think he’s not in serious trouble, but dead.
J1. Leo gets upset after he receives a call from what he thinks is his sister, but it turns out to be Bob
I must say, this is impressive. This matches up perfectly with a moment on the other side when Leo gets overwhelmed with anger at the sight of Bob putting his arm around Leo’s sister.
I2. Bob visits Betty in person, pretending to investigate his own suicide, and Leo gets informed about the supposed suicide
L. Bob barely makes it onto a bus headed to Lake Winnipesaukee
You could argue that this corresponds to the elevator rides at D, but that already had an amazing reversal when Bob gets onto the elevator and reacts horribly to the shock of it.
M. The Marvin family goes shopping
We never see the whole family in town again. This is just a one-off scene to set up Bob’s sudden appearance at Lake Winnipesaukee.
E2. Bob makes it to Lake Winnipesaukee and briefly sees Leo’s family
O1. Leo tells Bob he doesn’t get upset
Oh, he does. He does.
P1. Bob meets the Guttmans, and they offer to bring him to Leo’s house
The Guttmans can tell Leo doesn’t want to see Bob, so they deliver him to Leo’s house just to spite him. And they love seeing their work pay off on live television just two days later.
Q1. Sigmund reveals he’s too scared to learn how to dive, despite his father’s wishes
At this particular moment, Sigmund is unable to acquiesce to his father’s demands but Sigmund later gives in to his father’s demand to remain quiet during the night. Also in that later scene, Bob tosses away his tissue paper. Seeing Sigmund unable to overcome his fears is a nice counterbalance to Bob overcoming his fear of germs in the form of his ever-present tissue paper that he uses on doors and when shaking hands. However, these two scenes take place just slightly out of order.
R1. Bob arrives unexpectedly at Leo’s house
This corresponds with Good Morning America arriving early on the other side, but, again, they’re just a tiny bit out of order.
S1. Bob introduces himself to Leo’s daughter Anna and wife Fay, and Fay takes Bob’s fish
We see the resolution to this setup with the fish not long after.
T1. Leo invites Bob to take a vacation from his problems
This also has a callback in just a couple of scenes.
S2. Bob returns for his fish and introduces himself to Sigmund
V1. Leo tries several setups in his living room for the Good Morning America shoot
I suppose you could say this gets paid off when Good Morning America finally shows up, but it’s not made a big deal of.
T2. Bob shows up at Leo’s house and tells him he’s now on vacation from his problems
X1. Leo holds a family council and tells his family not to let Bob in the house
Leo’s refusal to let Bob in his house will last about as long as Mr. Bennet’s refusal to let Mr. and Mrs. Wickham in his. Anybody remember Pride and Prejudice?
Y1. Bob gets scared while walking alone on a road
It’s a short scene, but it makes Bob more vulnerable and child-like. Plus, it makes his fears of dying when he falls into the water later that much more believable.
Z1. Bob gets a ride from Anna, and they have a conversation about communication
The middle of the chiasmus is pretty messy. All three of these middle parts are out of order. The middle is when Leo utterly fails to help Sigmund learn how to dive, but the payoff for that isn’t for several more scenes.
AA1. Bob goes sailing with Anna
BB1. Sigmund tries diving again and Leo accidentally drops him in before he’s ready to dive
AA2. Bob brags to Leo that he sailed
Z2. Leo leaves the car at the dock and has a talk with his daughter in which she implies he never listens to her
BB2. Bob accidentally helps Sigmund learn how to dive
Y2. Leo pushes Bob into the water, and Bob gets scared that he’s going to die
X2. In another family council, Leo is forced to invite Bob to dinner
E3. At dinner, Leo tells Bob to call him Dr. Marvin
Another callback to the first E when Dr. Marvin had allowed Bob to call him Leo in his office.
W. Bob saves Le– Dr. Marvin from choking
There’s simply nothing that this dramatic moment corresponds with.
Z3. The family sings with Bob while putting food and dishes away, and Dr. Marvin is frustrated that they don’t have the car
U. Bob settles into Sigmund’s room while Dr. Marvin frets
This does have a couple of payoffs with the bed being moved to block the bedroom doorway, and when Dr. Marvin discovers his toothbrush is missing. But they aren’t made a huge deal of, and they’re not all that important in the grand scheme of things.
F2. Sigmund discusses death with Bob, and Bob introduces Sigmund to Tourette’s
This is a nice callback to the first F when Bob tells Dr. Marvin all about his problems, one of which is his fear of developing Tourette’s.
Q2. Dr. Marvin demands Bob and Sigmund stop shouting profanity, and Bob gives up his tissue paper
R2. Bob wakes up and is just leaving when the Good Morning America crew arrives early
I could have separated this into two separate scenes, since one is of Dr. Marvin attempting to wake Bob up and the other is of Bob leaving just a little too late. But they feel connected because both of them deal with the fact that Dr. Marvin desperately wanted Bob gone before the camera crew arrived.
V2. The Good Morning America crew decides to include Bob in the interview in front of the fireplace
P2. Bob embarrasses Dr. Marvin in front of millions of people on Good Morning America, much to the Guttmans’ delight
O2. Dr. Marvin loses his temper, yells at Bob, and tries to throw him out of the house
Yeah, he definitely gets angry.
N1. Dr. Marvin checks Bob into an insane asylum
This is a fun little chiasmus all by itself. Dr. Marvin thinks he’s getting rid of Bob, but he soon learns that he can’t get rid of him that easily. Dr. Marvin is immune to Bob’s charms, but all of the orderlies and psychological staff at the insane asylum are completely enchanted by his winning personality.
N2. Dr. Marin returns and is forced to get Bob out of the insane asylum
K1. Dr. Marvin strands Bob on the side of the road and drives away
And right after that little mini-chiasmus we get another! This time, Dr. Marvin and Bob trade places stuck on the side of the road. But Dr. Marvin gets the added insult of a ticket for speeding and a splash of mud in his face.
K2. Dr. Marvin gets stranded on the side of the road while Bob drives away
J2. Dr. Marvin arrives at his birthday party and is furious when he sees Bob with his sister
-I. Bob helps a doctor revise a prescription for Dr. Marvin
I like that this demonstrates Bob’s knowledge on the subject of medicine and his growth as a character, but it doesn’t really apply to anything else, except perhaps the epilogue in which he becomes a psychologist in his own right.
D3. The Marvin family reluctantly tells Bob to leave
This kind of matches up with the second D when Bob sadly leaves Dr. Marvin’s office.
G2. Dr. Marvin introduces Bob to the concept of “Death Therapy”
F3. Dr. Marvin ties Bob up and Bob thinks it’s an elaborate therapy session to cure him of all the “knots” in his life
C2. Dr. Marvin and Bob declare themselves “free”
H. The Marvins’ house blows up
There’s no formal introduction to the house, but we just kind of get to know it bit by bit as the film progresses. So the final destruction of it doesn’t have a perfect counterpoint to match it up against.
-B. Dr. Marvin is comatose and can’t react to his family’s pleas
One could argue that this matches up with the next scene of Dr. Marvin snapping out of his comatose state, but I prefer the role reversal of Dr. Marvin and Bob implied at the start and end of the film.
B2. Bob marries Dr. Marvin’s sister, snapping Dr. Marvin out of his comatose state
-G. A text epilogue appears before the end credits
This is a callback to Bob’s growth, as well as the “Death Therapy” and “Baby Steps” introductions. So it’s many things, but there’s not a single part in all of the ones listed above that really unifies them all.
What About It?
Boy, wasn’t that a mess? I hope this at least demonstrates that not every film is meant to be a chiasmus, and that’s perfectly fine. What About Bob? is still a great movie, and I don’t mean to take away from its reputable reputation through this destructive deconstruction. It has plenty of setups and payoffs, like any good movie should. But they aren’t constructed in a chiasmus structure, so that’s why my analysis didn’t work on it the way it does with some other films. It’s rare to come across an example of Cinematic Chiasmus.
There are some shockingly exact moments of chiasmus in What About Bob? But they are far outweighed by all of the moments that don’t match up or ones that have no corresponding event. I’ve been able to get away with one or two such instances of out-of-order events in other Cinematic Chiasmus examples, but there’s no way this was going to work. Even if we ignored all of the parts with no match, what’s left is not enough to call a chiasmus. The scenes that do match are all fairly important ones. I’m especially gleeful about the “Baby Steps” and “Death Therapy” moments matching perfectly. I’d call those a fun anomaly in an otherwise very loosely patterned film.
So, thank you to my friends at Latter-day Chiasmus, but I’m sorry I wasn’t able to find a chiasmus in this particular film. Don’t worry, though. I’ve got a feeling that there are plenty of other films that do fit the bill.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.