Psychiatrists have been such a traditional butt of movie humor since the '30s that the idea behind "The Couch Trip" (citywide) seems a natural: a comic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" crossbred with "Spellbound" and updated to the age of Dr. Toni Grant. In the film, a con man at the Cicero prison mental facility, played by Dan Aykroyd, impersonates his own psychiatrist and flim-flams his way into a gig as replacement for Dr. George Maitland (Charles Grodin), Beverly Hills monarch of dial-a-neurosis radio.
Sounds foolproof? Not quite. This is a movie about double-shufflers and con men--and halfway through, you get the feeling the movie is double-shuffling you. "The Couch Trip" seems to have a first-class comic pedigree--Walter Matthau, Grodin, Aykroyd and other "Saturday Night Live" alumni in the cast, director Michael Ritchie at the helm. But it often has the brittle surface and sharp, vacuous jive of a bunko artist working a crowd. And it's so slack and complacent that its pokes at complacency seem incestuous.
Aykroyd is playing a part that seems ideal for him: John Burns, motor-mouthed Chicago con man, disguised as psychiatrist Frank Laird (David Clennon). Unlike Laird and Maitland (Charles Grodin, in the film's best performance), Burns is super-rational, a helluva guy and a Cubs fan to boot. When he takes over the call-in show, his foul-mouthed, candid advice takes Los Ageles by storm--and brings on a set of who's-the-real-nut-here complications.
The targets are so ripe for skewering it seems impossible to miss them. What could be more absurd than 5-minute on-the-air psychological sessions interspersed with ads for money funds and Hawaiian vacations? Instead, we get more jokes about the Hollywood sign--which seems to exist these days simply to inspire lazy screenwriters. (Here, Walter Matthau--as the con man's sidekick--has to stage a suicide attempt on it.) And we get the regulation jibes about nymphomaniacs, lechery, Beverly Hills opulence--round-heeled targets who all topple over as willingly as Maitland's adulterous wife.
On the old "Saturday Night Live," Aykroyd often seemed the most brilliant of the troupe, but his movies often don't tap his special chameleonic gifts; here, his Burns seems too constricted, well-organized and rational to be a raffish Randle McMurphy-style clown and liberator.
There's something puffy, smirky and dead-eyed in Aykroyd's expression. Even when he finally begins cooking in the talk show scenes--rattling off hip advice with oily panache--it's still tame, expectable chaos. And, at times, he looks like Rich Little warming up for a lounge act. That's part of the joke--the psychiatrists are psychotics and the patients are sane--but Aykroyd doesn't bring much danger or volatility to this role, and danger is what it needs.
Most of the story's humor is on a lounge-act level, too. Why has comic virtuoso Walter Matthau been cast as the wasted sidekick, Becker, a part that seems more suitable for Bob Denver?
Michael Ritchie has a flair for dry, distanced, severely unemotional humor and he's usually been at his best in sports films--or in films that suggest a competitive ambiance, like "The Candidate" or "Smile." But he's a director who's really at the mercy of the script; here, as in "The Golden Child," the script is a tinny albatross.
Most of the jokes are seen before they're felt. In the entire cast, only Charles Grodin and Mary Gross manage some first-class comic moments: Grodin glowering as the psychotic psychiatrist and Gross dithering as his scared-stiff wife. They're only doing the obvious--which is all the movie has to offer--but they do it with relish. Briefly, in their scenes, the satiric needle cuts through the flab, and this "Couch Trip" (MPAA-rated R for language) comes alive.
'THE COUCH TRIP' An Orion release of a Lawrence Gordon production. Producer Lawrence Gordon. Director Michael Ritchie. Script Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Sean Stein. Camera Donald Thorin. Production design Jimmie Bly. Music Michel Colombier. Editor Richard A. Harris. With Dan Aykroyd, Walter Matthau, Charles Grodin, Donna Dixon, David Clennon.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).