The Summer of '83: Doctor Detroit -

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  • Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Howard Hesseman, TK Carter, Fan Drescher, Donna Dixon, Lynn Whitfield, Lydia Lei and Kate Murtagh
  • Written by: Carl Gottlieb, Robert Boris and Bruce Jay Friedman
  • Directed by: Michael Pressman
  • Studio: Universal
  • Rating: R
  • Run Time: 89 minutes
  • Series:

The Summer of '83: Doctor Detroit

"I make adjustments to the human spine!"

By Rob Vaux     May 06, 2013

 I suppose we should forgive Dan Aykroyd for the well-intentioned misfire that is Doctor Detroit. It was his first effort after the death of his partner/blood brother John Belushi, and Aykroyd had yet to carry a film on his own. You can sense him going for broke with the project in an effort to single-handedly fill the now unoccupied space beside him. It saves the film from absolute disaster, but it’s a near thing sometimes.

Aykroyd plays Clifford Skridlow, an absurdly nerdy literature professor who ends up in the wrong Indian restaurant at the wrong time. Fast-talking pimp Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman; yes, really) spies him from across the room and hits upon the notion to get clear of a sizeable debt. He plies Clifford with his four girls (including Fran Drescher and Aykroyd’s future wife Donna Dixon), then blows town… leaving the mild-mannered nebbish to face fiendish loan shark Mom (Kate Murtagh) alone. In order to triumph, Cliff must transform himself into the visage of Walker’s imaginary partner: a steel-clawed lunatic by the name of Doctor Detroit.

We’re supposed to find the transformation amusing in a Nutty Professor kind of way, as the straitlaced academic suddenly becomes the crazed king of the Chicago underworld.  Skridlow’s WASP-y uptightness mutates into Detroit’s anarchic persona: taking uncool so far down the road of coke-fueled mania that it swings around and becomes cool again. There’s a charge in the concept, but it can’t last; the screenplay mines about one funny line in ten, leaving Aykroyd alone with a wig and a silly voice to carry the show.

Doctor Detroit suffers further under its mess of a plot, in which several routine sitcom formulas get plugged into each other in the hopes that the ensuing chaos will produce some laughs. In addition to saving Walker’s stable of gold-hearted hookers, Skridlow needs to rescue his university by securing a large grant, while maintaining both sides of his increasingly schizophrenic identity for no apparent reason. It comes to a head as a fancy hotel, with Doctor Detroit’s collection of colorful underworld figures partying down in one ballroom and Skridlow’s blue-blooded ivory tower types awaiting the endowment announcement in another. What better way to show our hero running madly through hallways changing costumes? That’s funny, right?!

The desperation lurks under the surface at all times, turning one potentially knee-slapping scene after another into so much dead air. The grab-bag of near-skits feel like rejected Saturday Night Live offerings, strung together with the hardscrabble fundaments of cohesion and unleashed on an unsuspecting audience.  You can sense the filmmakers trying so hard to get us to laugh without noticing the growing pool of flop sweat beneath them. Against it, Aykroyd rails like Lear in the storm, using sheer force of will to induce a chuckle out of us whether we want to or not.

He’s battling serious gaps in logic than no amount of humor can save. Why does Skridlow agree to do this? Why would the hookers turn to him for help? What do we know about this man that could possibly create this kind of change in him? The script wallpapers it over with some surprisingly high-flown notions of chivalry that don’t hold water in any kind of plausible universe. This is a comedy, so that’s not supposed to matter, but without the laughs to distract us, the movie’s terminal laziness practically head butts us into the ground.

I’ll be honest: it plays a lot better when you’re twelve. Some of us found Doctor Detroit on video after its release, when loose rental stores cheerfully placed its R-rated thrills in our under-aged hands.  That makes it sound far more dangerous than it is, though it also demonstrates the dangers of rose-colored glasses. For youngsters in search of slightly naughty thrills, it feels like a comedic roller coaster. Watching it again thirty years later only sucks those happy memories away. Audiences stayed away in droves, and today the film exists as little more than a footnote in its star’s checkered career. Aykroyd didn’t have to suffer the indignity long; Trading Places came out one short month later, washing away his sins until the next misfire. He did his best here; without more support from the material, it wasn’t nearly good enough. 


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SarcasticCaveman 5/6/2013 2:53:19 AM

 Okay...I love Dan Aykroyd, but this article really made me think about something - Is he really THAT good on his own?  I'm not sure that he is.  It doesn't seem like he does very well in a major role when he doesn't have somebody else to play off of.  In "The Blues Brothers" he had Belushi, in "Ghostbusters" he had Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, in "The Great Outdoors" he had John Candy, and in "Trading Places" he had Eddie Murphy.  His other major solo effort I can think of besides "Doctor Detroit" (and I think this article sums it up pretty accurately), is "My Stepmother Is an Alien" my question is, is Dan Aykroyd really that good when he's not part of an ensemble?  Again, I love him, but this article really has me scratching my head now.

blankczech 5/6/2013 8:38:32 AM

You can only play the parts they offer you.

Guys like Belushi and Ramis couldn't act...they played off him.

Ackroyd was excellent in Driving Miss Daisy.

bennyhill 5/6/2013 11:12:12 AM

 And in The Great Outdoors

HomestarRunner 5/6/2013 2:25:22 PM

Love Dan Aykroyd and I loved "Doctor Detroit"...though I was probably around 12 when I saw it.

As for Dan's leading man potential, I'd say it's pretty low. That's ok, though. It takes all kinds to make an industry. Besides, he married Donna Dixon so what should he care what any of us think of him?

RaithManan 5/7/2013 9:33:26 AM

There was a time critics and much moviegoers thought Bill Murray was nothing but a comedic tool who couldn't excel beyond of what is was known for.  Well, over the years, who's laughing now?  Give someone a chance and you never a know.  There was an inkling of his skills in a very forgotten 1981 film he was in called, The Razor's Edge

As far as Aykroyd goes, while he had a better run as a tandem act or smaller roles as a bit player, its not necessarily too late for him to show what he can do on his own.  Murray is proof of that.  Its all about the right material at the right moment.

Back in the old days up until the mid 90's, studios took more of a flier's chance with guys you wouldn't think would have had a shot.  In this age unfortunately, too much money invested makes studios panic to take chances like they once did.  That's part of the reason why a guy like Robert Redford helped put independent films more on the map to help give actors a shot that they once had or may have never be given by more prestigious employers.

BunyonSnipe 5/8/2013 2:03:13 AM

Yeah Doctor Detroit is just terrible and as much as I love Aykroyd... he is just terrible in it, from terrible speed walking start through Dr. Detroit's first appearance, in which he is supposed to be this scary intimidating guy, who then get chased through a junk yard, to the terrible James Brown dance scene...

Would be interesting to see this remade, but making Detroit genuinely scary...

And yes he DOES work better as part of a double act, because he has real charm, and that really comes through when he has a good foil...

BunyonSnipe 5/8/2013 2:03:56 AM

And don't get me started on the waddling thing he does...



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