Remember the 80s, when prostitution consisted of wacky hijinks and hookers with a heart of gold, and not underage girls, abused and strung out on various drugs? Hollywood has had a long history with the “oldest profession,” and in a variety of depictions, such as the decidedly sanitized versions seen in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce, to the bleaker look of 12-year-old Jodi Foster playing a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But in the 80s, “sex comedies” were all the rage, and we were treated to such films as Night Shift, Risky Business and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, all which portrayed the sex worker industry in a less than realistic light. One film that falls into this particular category bombed at the box office back in the late 80s — now mostly forgotten — and that film would be Doctor Detroit, starring one of Saturday Night Lives funniest alumni, Dan Aykroyd.
Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) is a pimp, but he’s more interested in nice shoes and his tacky penthouse apartment than the business of running his girls, and this leads to him owing local mob boss “Mom” (Kate Murtagh) $80,000, that he apparently blew on clothes and furnishings. Mom demands that he hand over whatever money he has, as well as the girls in his stable, and in return, she won’t have him killed, but fast-thinking Smoothy concocts a fictitious mobster partner as a reason for not being able to hand his business over to Mom. He pulls the name “Doctor Detroit” out of his ass, and then he has to scramble to find some chump to fill that role while he skips town. Enter Clifford Skridlow (Dan Aykroyd), an introverted geek who teaches Comparative Literature at a local college. Clifford is all about chivalry and honor, so he seems to be the perfect dupe.
Smooth Walker seduces Clifford into becoming his partner in the “entertainment” business by taking him clubbing, where he and the girls — Monica (Donna Dixon), Jasmine (Lydia Lei), Thelma (Lynn Whitfield), and Karen (Fran Drescher) — ply him with drugs and alcohol. The next day, Walker fakes a beating — that passes off as having gotten from Doctor Detroit — and tells Mom that he is getting out of town and that she can deal with the Doctor herself: “Keep me out of it!” Good ole Smoothy then purchases plane tickets to the Samoan islands and skips town.
Wait a minute… what was the point of creating Doctor Detroit if he was just going to flee the country? Mom just wanted his stable of girls, so if Walker had just said “Sure, they’re all yours,” and left the country, everybody, with the exception of the girls, would have been happy. The creation of some mysterious badass crime boss from Detroit was completely unnecessary, and what’s worse, the script never gives us valid reasons for Clifford going along with this plan and adopting the Doctor Detroit persona.
To test Doctor Detroit’s ability to take care of his girls, Mom has Thelma busted, and this results in a quite unfunny scene of the girls calling up Clifford for help, while he is in the middle of a faculty meeting at his college. Clifford agrees to help out _ I’m guessing his reasons are more out of embarrassment than anything remotely pertaining to logic — and all the viewer gets out of this is an even more embarrassingly unfunny scene of him dressed up as a “Southern Gentleman” who manages to browbeat a cracker judge into letting Thelma go, and dropping the charges. This entire movie seems like it was designed around a couple of sketch moments — the type you’d see on Saturday Night Live — but without any kind of story-structure to hold the whole thing together. That the character of Mom would somehow be a worse pimp than that of idiot Smooth Walker is never really addressed, so Clifford’s chivalric meddling doesn’t hold water. Also, the fact that Mom doesn’t seem capable of taking out a college professor — whose skill set includes rock climbing, power walking, and Indian cuisine — makes her an even less credible threat.
I’m just as susceptible to a pretty face as the next guy, but at no point does this movie come up with a credible reason for why an introverted college professor would dress up like a lunatic, and then meet armed gangsters in a junkyard in the middle of the night. I don’t care how hot those four women are, they are not worth getting filled full of lead and dumped into the East River. Clifford surviving an encounter with a half dozen armed goons — somehow coming out on top — is patently ridiculous, but not in a funny way. It doesn’t work on any comedic level at all. But this film isn’t relying solely on the “Mom vs Doctor Detroit” plot dynamic to carry all the comedy, as we also get the standard balancing act of Clifford trying to handle his dual identity as Doctor Detroit, while also organizing an alumni dinner — the school expects a donation which will save the college from going bankrupt — and what could be better than that old cliché “School needs money” subplot to keep the comedy rolling? It should go without saying that the college fundraising party is taking place on the same night as the “Players Ball” — that’s the pimp community’s lavish crowning party, which according to this film is a thing — and of course, it’s also being held down the hall from all those stuck up white folks.
The comedic element of a mild-mannered protagonist being forced out of his shell has provided comedy gold in countless screwball comedies over the years, from Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby to Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, but in Doctor Detroit, the filmmakers spend no time building believable characters, ones for which we would want to see a change in their circumstances, but instead, they depend on Dan Aykroyd making funny voices in random scenes to carry the picture. Sadly, it does not. One could let slide the fact that the movie’s plot does not make one lick of sense if it was funny, but Doctor Detroit contains nothing but a string of bad comedy sketches trying to pass themselves off as a movie. I can’t recommend this thing to even the mildly curious — or even fans of Dan Aykroyd — as it’s not only painfully unfunny but also quite boring as well. The doctor may be in, but the patient is dead.
Doctor Detroit (1983)
This was Dan Aykroyd’s first outing after his friend and comedy partner John Belushi died, and as the years progressed it become more evident that Aykroyd worked best when in a comedic ensemble and not on his own.