I first saw this film during the peak of my Dan Aykroyd obsession. I’d been slowly making my way through his greatest hits and I stumbled across this on TV late one night. I sat down to watch it for a few minutes and almost made my way through the entire thing. As in love with Aykroyd as I was at the time, I decided to hunt down the DVD and get the whole experience. I can’t say it landed anywhere near my top 5 of his performances. So much so that I got rid of the DVD a few years ago and thought nothing of it. In fact, so little had I thought about this film since then that I didn’t even put it as an option for TBT film jar. I hadn’t bothered to suggest it as a film that also celebrates its 30th birthday this year. Perhaps this say something about my underlying thoughts on the film but I don’t remember hating it. And why would I? Aykroyd aside, I adore Walter Matthau. I hope someday to be Max from Grumpy Old Men but, you know, not a man. So I decided it was time to revisit the film. Just to make sure. And to appease that soft spot I have for late 80s Dan Aykroyd’s face… and talent I guess.
The central conceit that The Couch Trip rests upon is that psychiatrists are often as crazy as their patients. When celebrity radio therapist Dr George Maitlin (Charles Grodin) suffers from a mental breakdown of his own, his people struggle to find someone to fill in for him. Under Maitlin’s instruction they hire someone who is barely qualified to fill in. Unfortunately, instead of Dr Lawrence Baird, it is his patient John Burns Jr. (Dan Aykroyd) who answers the call. Looking for a way to get out of his prison mandated institutionalisation, John breaks out of hospital and heads for the nearest airport to take Baird’s place. Hoping to make enough cash to be able to run off into the sunset.
Turns out that the fake Baird is a massive hit with Maitlin’s audience. With his no-nonsense and critical approach, he tells callers how it really is and doesn’t give a fuck about the rules of radio. Baird becomes the talk of the town and looks set to take over from Maitlin permanently. Until, at a conference in London, Dr Maitlin runs into the real Baird, Forcing him to rush home and save his livelihood. At the same time, John has befriended a petty criminal (Walter Matthau) and ends up having to make the choice between his new allegiance and his plan to cut and run.
The Couch Trip does have some really great moments of comedy but it is one of those frustrating films that never fully lives up to its potential. Aykroyd is on especially good form as the opportunistic and charming John. It’s clear he’s enjoying every moment of playing the character and this is what really keeps the film going. It’s just a shame that the narrative moves away from his original fraud to become a sentimental film about the importance of friendship. A step that ends up with Aykroyd’s character hanging from a helicopter before being dropped onto the Hollywood sign. I’ve seen this film a number of times at this point and I still can’t quite fathom the decision to have it end the way it does.
Still, there is enough here to make it a pleasant and entertaining experience. It’s certainly not up there with Aykroyd’s greatest hits but it’s nowhere near his worst. Matthau is a little underutilised but does some good work. Charles Grodin has some brilliant moments but isn’t on-screen as much as he should be. There are several plot lines that just distract from the main narrative and go nowhere. Like Maitlin’s wife having and affair and telling her husband. It is played for one or two laughs before being discarded for ages. It’s a film that tries so hard to be everything but, as a consequence, fails at so much. Still, I was pleased to discover that I liked this film better than I thought I had. If only the final act had been a little better conceived.