Director Michael Ritchie seemed to be on the fast track in becoming one of Hollywood's "A" list young filmmakers. His career started in television and hit a speed bump when he was fired from "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." after arguing with a producer about the content of a script. However, he eventually segued into movies. His first big screen feature was "Downhill Racer", the 1969 drama starring Robert Redford that displayed Ritchie's talents behind the cameras. A few years later, his career went into overdrive. He directed the quirky hit crime film "Prime Cut" followed by the prescient political satire "The Candidate" and then the critically-praised satire "Smile". His genial comedy "The Bad News Bears" proved to be a major boxoffice hit. Ritchie never stopped working but the momentum faded by the late 1970s. He had the occasional modest hit ("Semi-Tough", "Fletch") but all too often he was consigned to mediocre films that played to mediocre results. Whether Ritchie was denied bringing innovative visions to reality by short-sighted studio executives or whether he just ran out of steam is not known. However, by the time he died in 2001 at only 62 years of age, those of us who admired his earlier films couldn't help but think that some great, unfilled projects had died with him. One of Ritchie's "work-for-hire" productions, the 1988 comedy "The Couch Trip" has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The quirky screwball concept falls short of its potential but there is much to recommend about it.
The movie opens at a psychiatric institution in Illinois where John W. Burns Jr. (Dan Aykroyd) is being held against his will. However, if he is a prisoner, it is in the sense that Bob Crane's Colonel Hogan was prisoner: the inmate is literally running the asylum. Burns has it pretty good for an incarcerated man. He's overflowing with confidence, charisma and superficial charm and wins over everyone in his sphere of influence. There seem to be few pleasures that he is denied at the institution and even finds a way to have sex with the secretary (Victoria Jackson) of the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Baird (David Clennon), an uptight, humorless man who doesn't relate to the inmates under his care. The script introduces a separate story line concerning Dr. George Maitlin (Charles Grodin), an esteemed and very popular psychiatrist who dispenses pearls of wisdom to "patients" who call into his popular radio program. When it turns out that Maitlin himself is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he decides to take a sabbatical and attend a professional conference in London with his bubble-headed wife Vera (Mary Gross). He puts out the word that he wants an obscure psychiatrist to fill in for him by hosting his radio program, on the proviso that the substitute host isn't impressive enough to challenge Maitland's stranglehold on his audience. When word reaches the institute that Dr. Baird has been chosen to interview for the hosting gig, Burns intercepts the message, orchestrates a brilliant escape, steals a car and adopts the identity of Baird, even managing to fly to L.A. on his plane ticket (this was 1988, after all, before today's onerous security measures would render such a feat virtually impossible). Once in Hollywood, Burns is met by his "colleague", Dr. Laura Rollins (Aykroyd's real life wife Donna Dixon), who- in addition to being brainy- is also a sexy, leggy blonde. He also meets Harvey Michaels (Richard Romanus), a smarmy, fast-talking agent who is representing Maitland. The faux Dr. Baird quickly intimidates Michaels by making outrageous demands to host the radio program, all of which are met. Burns hits a speed bump when he has a chance encounter with a seemingly crazed con man named Donald Becker (Walter Matthau), who recognizes him as a wanted man and threatens to expose him if he doesn't make him a partner in his schemes. Left with no choice, Burns has Becker move into his lush hotel suite.
When Burns makes his debut in the guise of substitute host Dr. Baird on the radio program, he radicalizes the format by dispensing brutally honest advice to his troubled call-in audience. At times, he indulges in outrageous behavior and tosses out obscenities that shock Michaels and Dr. Rollins. However, all is forgiven when he becomes an overnight sensation and a ratings smash. Before long, "Dr. Baird" is the toast of Hollywood, leading to him making even more outrageous demands. A fly in the ointment comes when the real Dr. Baird meets Dr. Maitland at a convention in London. The two men realize they're being exploited and hurry back to Hollywood where they attempt to thwart Burns as he accepts an award on Maitland's behalf at a black tie dinner.
"The Couch Trip" starts out as an uninspired comedy but improves considerably as it progresses. The script is most effective in satirizing the (then) new populist trend of having troubled people rely on advice of radio show hosts to make life-altering decisions in their lives. The concept was absurd in the 1980s and has grown exponentially today with people using social media platforms as Dollar Store versions of psychiatrists, taking the advice of total strangers in regard to resolving their most intimate problems. Aykroyd is in top form with his cynical con man schtick. Matthau appears only fleetingly but adds his considerable skills to the merriment- and the supporting cast is also very amusing with Charles Grodin and David Clennon particularly funny. Director Michael Ritchie proves to be as adept with comedy as he was with dramas and thrillers and his "hands off" style allows both Aykroyd and Matthau to shine. The film bombed on its theatrical release but it offers enough gentle pleasures that it can recommended for home viewing. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray provides what appears to be segments from the film's original electronic presskit including some interesting behind the scenes footage and interviews with Aykroyd, Dixon and Ritchie (though grumpy old man Matthau's interviews have a total running time of about 20 seconds). The original trailer is also included.