The Couch Trip

The Couch Trip
Released: January 15, 1988
Directed by:  Michael Ritchie
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Walter Matthau, Charles Grodin
Availability: DVD, Hoopla Digital (free if your public library has an account)

We have to have reached the end of the road for mistaken identity comedy, right?  In The Couch Trip, Dan Aykroyd’s character, an inmate at a state psychiatric correctional facility, manages to not only impersonate his psychiatrist on the phone, but maintain the charade during a cross-country flight, acting about as conspicuously as possible.  In today’s world, that would of course be impossible, but I have to believe it would have been impossible in 1988 as well.

What’s it About?

Dan Aykroyd plays John Burns, a patient/inmate at a psychiatric hospital, convicted of an unidentified crime.  He is a constant thorn in the side of Dr. Baird, primarily by Burns being able to perform the doctor’s job better than he can.  Through a series of wacky set-pieces, he manages to escape and take Dr. Baird’s place as a Los Angeles radio psychiatrist’s temporary replacement.

Charles Grodin plays the aforementioned radio psychiatrist, Dr. Maitlin, who is in the midst of a personal and professional breakdown culminating in an attempted Valium overdose.  His manager convinces him to take an extended sabbatical, and sets about finding a suitably competent (but not too much so) replacement.

Upon arriving in Los Angeles (as mentioned above, almost too easily), we immediately meet the rest of the cast: the nondescript love interest, played by Aykroyd’s real life wife Donna Dixon, and the legendary Walter Matthau as a supposedly insane street preacher, railing maniacally against the dangers of plants.  Maybe he had just seen The Happening.

Aykroyd’s unconventional style, both straight-shooting and vulgar, apparently immediately endears him to the Los Angeles listening public.  He becomes famous all the while plotting his escape to Mexico City as soon as his $200,000 stipend is delivered to him.  Matthau’s street preacher comes to live with Aykroyd on threat of exposing his secret (Aykroyd was still wearing his prison-issue pants, recognized immediately by Matthau, his first day in Los Angeles, claiming that the fashion had not yet reached LA from Chicago).

Meanwhile, Charles Grodin’s Dr. Maitlin attends the same conference in London as the real Dr. Baird in a coincidence bordering on the impossible in real life but must be a mundane occurrence for characters inhabiting a mistaken identity comedy from the 1980s.  Grodin immediately deduces the problem and sets off back to Los Angeles, Dr. Baird in tow, to rectify the error, but mostly to retrieve his money.

The two psychiatrists return just in time to crash a gala in which Aykroyd’s character is accepting an award on behalf of Dr Maitlin.  Hijinks ensue, and Aykroyd escapes with his money to the airport.  The airplane, however, is inexplicably airing a local news report of a man threatening to jump off the letter Y in the Hollywood sign.  This man is, of course, revealed to be Walter Matthau, yelling for Aykroyd’s character.

Aykroyd redeems himself by coming to Matthau’s rescue, but gets arrested in the process.  While being transported to prison, Matthau and the previously mentioned love interest commit several felonies to liberate Aykroyd, with Matthau and Aykroyd riding off into the sunset on a motorcycle.

 

Cultural Impact

This is the section where we’ll examine three primary aspects of the film:

  1. Why was this film made? What was going on in the world that made the filmmakers feel like this film was a story that needed to be told?
  2. What impact did this film have on culture? We’ll look at what people thought of the film at the time, both critically and commercially.  Also, does this film have any cultural touchstones that we, 27 years later, still reference?
  3. Could this movie be made today? If so, what would it look like?

 

The Couch Trip is based on a novel, written in 1971, by Ken Kolb.  Kolb is better known as a writer of episodic television: he has written episodes of Dragnet, Wild Wild West, Hawaii Five-O and many other shows in the 1960s and 70s.  I would love to tell you how the novel was received, but I have no clue: there are no reviews on Amazon.com, and I’m probably not going to go back and read it myself; I have better things to do (though not that much better, since I’m doing this project).

This film comes in a time when purveyors of popular culture are kind of obsessed with psychology in general, and therapy more specifically.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had come the previous decade, and only a few years before Dolly Parton’s Straight Talk was a minor hit in theatres and Frasier began its long run on NBC.  Unlike Straight Talk, however, this film’s focus is decidedly not on the therapeutic advice dished out by Aykroyd’s character; there is really only one scene in which he dishes out pretty questionable advice.  And even then, he does so in such a crude manner that I don’t believe for a second the radio station would have let him continue regardless of the ratings.

The Couch Trip was one of a trio of films released on January 15, 1988, the first week in which new films were released for mass consumption.  It made $4 million its first week, falling behind Good Morning Vietnam, which had just been released to wide audiences, 1987 holdouts Three Men and a Baby, Moonstruck, and Broadcast News, and newcomers For Keeps and Return of the Living Dead 2.  It lasted in theatres for three weeks, amassing $11 million total on a $19 million budget.

As someone who considers himself to have an above average knowledge of popular culture in general, I had never heard of this movie.  I would say that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but I think it does: it has big, bankable stars in it.  Dan Aykroyd was in between the two Ghostbusters movies, Walter Matthau is a comedy legend, and Charles Grodin would go on to star in Midnight Run later in 1988.  This movie has certainly not made an impression on the popular culture landscape in any meaningful way.

At the time, Roger Ebert described the movie as “a disappointment, a missed opportunity.”  His review of this movie has a couple of really interesting observations about movie making in general that I would recommend you seek out if you’re interested in that sort of thing.  Like I said in my introduction, however, this isn’t really a movie review or a site about movie making in general, so I will refrain from quoting too heavily Mr. Ebert’s work.

And so we get to the final bullet: could this movie be made today?  It would be difficult, if only because of the fundamental differences in society that we have now.  We do still have mistaken identity comedies today, but they are almost always mystical or fantastical in nature (Big, for example, could probably be made today just fine).  But asking a character (a convicted felon, no less) to fly across the country without identification?  I doubt even the best writers could write their way out of that situation.

The fact that Aykroyd’s character is a convicted felon presents itself as a problem as well.  As I write this, the United States is just weeks removed from a daring prison escape by two convicted murderers.  In real life, these two men were assisted by a female prison worker who had sexual relations with at least one of the convicts.  In The Couch Trip, Aykroyd is similiary assisted in his escape by Victoria Jackson’s character, a secretary at the facility, who was having sexual relations with the felon.  For much the same reason we don’t see comedies about terrorists much these days, we probably won’t see a light comedy about a prison break any time soon.

Bringing up Jackson leads me to probably my final point: there are exactly female characters in this movie and all are woefully underwritten.  I have to believe that we’ve made great strides since the 1980s when it comes to female-driven comedy.  Both Victoria Jackson and Donna Dixon commit felonies to help Dan Aykroyd escape his fate as a convict for no real reason except he’s funny and good in bed I guess?  The third female character gets off a little better: Mary Gross has some excellent scenes as Charles Grodin’s put-upon wife but disappears during the third act.

 

Is It Any Good?

I hesitate to call what I’m writing movie reviews: I am not trained in the art of cinema, I don’t have that kind of eye.  I do, however, have opinions, and I do like to share them, so I did want to close out with a few thoughts regarding the quality of the movie.  Most of my criticisms are found above: the plot is weak, female characters are underwritten and serve only to advance the plot along.  But beyond that, there were some other things that stuck out to me.

First and foremost, Charles Grodin was clearly the best part of the movie and I don’t think anybody else could have convincingly played his character.  He needed to be a bigger part of the movie.  Walter Matthau, as great as he is, served very little purpose in the movie.  For a supposedly crazy person, he was wildly uninteresting.

I also found the movie to be weirdly edited.  On his way from the airport in a limo, Aykroyd turns on the television to a very loud fake condom commercial starring Chevy Chase and proceeds to have a conversation over the commercial.  I get that Aykroyd probably wanted to have this vignette with his friend Chase in it, and the commercial itself was funny, but it distracted from the dialogue that the actual characters in the movie were having.

The bottom line is, it’s not a great movie and there’s a reason it doesn’t come up much when discussing any of the stars’ canons.

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