For me two of the quintessential 80’s films are The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters. Both starred, and were in part written by, Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd was on quite a roll in the 80’s. In addition to these classics he also appeared in other hits like Trading Places and Spies Like Us. There were a few films that fizzled along the way, though. Which brings us to this little film from 1983 which, despite its title, sees Aykroyd return to Jake & Elwood’s home town of Chicago…Doctor Detroit.
The film begins with a high class pimp named Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) who owes $80,000 to the city’s biggest crime boss, Mom (Kate Murtagh). When pressed for the money, Smooth makes up an excuse that he can’t do anything about it because he now has to answer to the new big man in town. Scanning Mom’s office he makes up a name for this figure Keyser Soze style…Doctor Detroit. Problem is, now he needs someone to play the role of the “doctor.” Mom wants to meet him, after all. Enter Clifford Skridlow (Aykroyd), a hapless college professor.
Smooth and his four girls (Lynn Whitfield, Lydia Lei, Fran Drescher, and future Mrs. Aykroyd Donna Dixon) take Clifford out for a wild night. Then, Smooth skips town, instructing the girls to go to Cliff when they need help…unaware to the professor. Next thing we know, Clifford is managing the girls. He even poses as a southern-fried lawyer when one of the girls gets in trouble with the law. Before long, he has to don a costume to pose as the bizarre crazy-haired, metal-clawed, Doctor Detroit for a confrontation with Mom. Along the way, the whole city starts to hear about the good Doctor, and he becomes a bit of a celebrity. It all comes to a head when a gathering for Chicago’s criminal underbelly ends up meshing with a fundraiser for Clifford’s cash-strapped university in the same hotel.
Doctor Detroit is definitely not one of the standout moments in Aykroyd’s career, but it is mildly amusing. It seems like part of the goal behind this film may have been to let Aykroyd play a few different characters under the umbrella of one role. Clifford is actually not that unlike the part Aykroyd plays in his other big film from the same year, Trading Places. But once he starts to get into being Doctor Detroit, he embodies a few other personas. Strangely, Aykroyd is stronger as just plain old Clifford than he is as the other more extreme parts. The southern lawyer that he masquerades as is kind of fun, but it comes from out of nowhere. It’s essentially a chance to see Aykroyd return to the style of performing he had done on SNL. Aykroyd’s portrayal of Doctor Detroit, though, is a bit grating. He uses a weird nasally voice and lumbers around in robotic fashion. The voice is actually whinier than what co-star Fran Drescher usually does.
In general, the premise of a nebbish having to pose as a bizarre criminal kingpin is interesting. While I found the film entertaining on a certain level, I can’t really say it was a pot of comic gold. I think the majority of the problems really come down to a screenplay that doesn’t take full advantage of the comedic possibilities. There are some notable names who worked on the script, including Bruce Jay Friedman and Jaws co-writer Carl Gottlieb. There is no indication that Aykroyd contributed to the script, but if he had we may have gotten something more in line with his more iconic 80’s efforts. The cast is certainly up to the task, they just aren’t given material that matches their abilities.
Even if Aykroyd didn’t have a hand in the writing, I’m guessing he may have had a hand in orchestrating a cameo by the hardest working man in show business…James Brown. Aykroyd’s love of rhythm and blues music is well known and he previously wrote a part for Brown in The Blues Brothers. Brown’s part is a bit shoehorned in this time around, but hey…it’s James Brown! Hard to complain about that.
While I would never put Doctor Detroit alongside Aykroyd’s best films, it was still relatively enjoyable. It simply lacks any real standout moments to make memorable.