For those just tuning in, I have earmarked a set of films for vault induction that coincide with an upcoming horror convention I’ll be attending. Today’s focus shifts from those oh-so-recognizable contributors to a film, the actors, and instead turns toward those often-forgotten, but absolutely crucial participants, the writer. Carl Gottlieb is primarily known for his work on the Jaws franchise, but I’ve decided to save those films for Simon or Jason to critique. Instead, let us turn our attention to some of his lighter fare.
Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) is a pimp with a stable of high class working girls. Monica (Donna Dixon), Jasmine (Lydia Lei), Thelma (Lynn Whitfield), and Karen (Fran Drescher) are the best in Chicago, but they can’t sustain Smooth’s champagne tastes. When mob boss Mom (Kate Murtagh) comes looking for the eighty grand Smooth owes, he quickly fabricates a partner, Doctor Detroit, to cast blame upon. That evening, Smooth and the girls meet Clifford Skridlow (Dan Aykroyd), a geeky assistant professor of comparative literature at Monroe College, and show him the best time of his entire life. Smooth skips town toot sweet and, as instructed, his driver, Diavolo (T. K. Carter), and the girls seek out Cliff for help with Mom. A firm believer in chivalry, Cliff sets aside his meekness and comes to the rescue, giving life to the mythical Doctor Detroit.
Written by Carl Gottlieb, Bruce Jay Friedman and Robert Boris, Doctor Detroit is a fish-out-of-water comedy that benefits greatly from having Dan Aykroyd play that fish. Aykroyd’s comedic roles of the 80′s are staples of my film diet, and I always enjoy the chance to revisit any of his array of characters. In Doctor Detroit, Aykroyd portrays a respectful, overachieving geek and peels back his stiff exterior to reveal a piercing-voiced, garishly-clothed braggart with a side chiropractic practice. It would seem a stretch for Cliff to peacock in such a way, but a side plot involving the college’s desperate financial situation allows a glimpse of Cliff’s parents. His father (George Furth) is the tightly-wound dean and his mother (Nan Martin) is a silly joker, which makes Cliff’s duality and showboating more palatable.
Hot off his popularity as WKRP’s Dr. Fever, Hesseman plays Smooth wonderfully as both conniving and cowardly. As Diavolo, T. K. Carter, serves as professor of pimpology to Cliff and aids the Doctor in his unbelievable rise to stardom among Chicago players. On the flipside, Dixon, Dresher, Lei and Whitfield mostly lounge around temptingly in provocative attire. Indeed, they are all beautiful women, but are given little to do until the third act. Wasting their talent is the biggest fault of Doctor Detroit.
The aforementioned side plot involving a healthy contribution to the college feels like an afterthought, serving more to place Cliff’s straight-laced world in direct conflict with his newly found position in the Chicago underground for the climax. Considering nearly all nonsensical comedies rely on some sort of unlikely coincidence to add punch to the punchline, it’s a forgivable convention.
Doctor Detroit is a light-hearted affair, entertaining audiences with goofy shenanigans, cheeky humor, and a wholly likable main character. When you’ve got an ache that only frivolous 80′s comedies like Police Academy, Bachelor Party, or Revenge of the Nerds can cure, why not let Doctor Detroit make a house call?