Will Ferrell & Paul Rudd star in a mostly true, often too hard to watch story about a psychiatrist who fleeces his gullible, lonely patient.
If I were to tell you that Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd were starring in a comedic miniseries about a hapless, neurotic man whose entire life is taken over by his overbearing psychiatrist, you’d be forgiven for assuming that (a) Ferrell plays the psychiatrist and Rudd his patient, and (b) it’d be a pretty funny movie. In fact, the opposite is true: Rudd, in a rare villainous role, is the doctor, and the series, Apple TV+’s The Shrink Next Door, isn’t particularly funny. Oh, there are some amusing moments, but they’re more likely to elicit laughs of the uncomfortable kind, as the viewer is torn between sympathizing with its protagonist and wanting desperately to shake some sense into him
Based on the true crime podcast of the same name, The Shrink Next Door stars Ferrell as Marty Markowitz, left to run his family’s fabric business after the recent deaths of his parents. Though he’s a sweet guy, and excellent with children, Marty collapses into a stammering, panicky mess in the face of confrontation, whether it’s with an angry customer, a demanding ex-girlfriend, or an uncle trying to take over his business. Even ordering a sandwich is a nerve-wracking ordeal of indecisiveness. He would be completely helpless without his loving but no-nonsense sister Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn), who insists that he see a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist is Dr. Ike Herschkopf (Rudd), whose easy self-assurance both intimidates and impresses Marty. This is a guy who’s never had a problem deciding between turkey and roast beef in his entire life. Though Dr. Ike doesn’t treat Marty so much as simply tell him things about himself that he already knows, his hold on Marty is immediate and fierce. Marty starts dressing like Dr. Ike, and parroting the things he says to Phyllis and his employees, under the mistaken belief that he’s finally taking control of his life. It isn’t very long before Dr. Ike starts taking a less than professional interest in other aspects of his life, including his considerable wealth, and the family business Marty is desperate to keep afloat. Within the course of just a few years, Dr. Ike manages to alienate Marty from his sister, get access to his bank account, and even be named as the sole heir in Marty’s will. None of this is done without Marty’s knowledge. Indeed, he wholeheartedly agrees to all of it, under some delusion that it’s part of his “treatment.”
As is often the case, if not for the fact that The Shrink Next Door is based on a true story, it would be almost impossible to believe. The hardest part to understand in any story about a con artist is accepting that anyone would believe the kind of horseshit required to bilk someone out of millions of dollars, along with, in Marty’s case, estranging him from his family, taking over his house, and forcing him into an almost servant-like role. From the moment we meet Dr. Ike, nothing seems sincere about him. He’s a shmoozer who brags about his collection of photos with everyone from Farrah Fawcett to Jackie Stallone. His takeover of Marty’s life starts with the old “oh, I left my wallet at home” trick, and quickly snowballs from there, even though Marty clearly isn’t a stupid man. It makes no sense.
But then again, neither do the dozens of stories of women who have their entire life’s fortune stolen by a suitor who claims to be a Navy SEAL or in the Green Berets. Neither does the story of Keith Raniere, who managed to convince dozens of people that he had an IQ of 240, and parlayed that into a multilevel marketing scheme turned sex cult. As the scourge of QAnon illustrates, there are a lot of hopelessly gullible people in the world. In Marty’s case, it’s not just gullibility, but desperation. He’s lonely, he needs a friend, and he doesn’t realize that your psychiatrist shouldn’t demand to be your friend, let alone your only friend.
The story would perhaps be easier to accept if we had some sense of the characters’ motivations, but The Shrink Next Door, at least in limited series form, curiously refrains from going too deep. Although we get some vague idea of why Marty is the way he is (although it doesn’t go much further than “Daddy issues”), Dr. Ike remains a cipher until the very end. Though he comes off as an opportunist, there’s no sense that he’s done anything on this scale before, yet goes about it without so much as a tinge of regret, or even concern that he might get caught. At best, he’s envious of Marty’s wealth, and simply wants it for himself. It still doesn’t explain why he seems to get a sadistic enjoyment out of humiliating Marty, and bending him to his will.
It’s difficult to review a series like The Shrink Next Door. It’s capably directed by Michael Showalter, and its largely early 80s setting is accurately and tastefully rendered. Playing against type, People‘s Sexiest Man Alive Paul Rudd is surprisingly effective, using his signature boyish grin to sinister, disarming effect. It doesn’t seem possible that anybody could get away with what Dr. Ike does for so long, but if they looked like Paul Rudd maybe it would work. Will Ferrell, acting in a difficult role as someone who is both deeply sympathetic, and also too impossibly naive to comprehend, is sweetly understated. His best scenes are not with Rudd, but with Kathryn Hahn as Marty’s sister, who might be the only person who’s ever shown him genuine compassion and understanding. Hahn is only in half the episodes of the series, to its detriment.
Mostly, despite knowing that the real life Dr. Ike did eventually have to answer for his deeds (albeit 30 years too late), and that the real life Marty is still alive and well, it’s a deeply uncomfortable watch, too uncomfortable for it to be enjoyable for more than episode or two at a time. Perhaps if you’re as sure of yourself as Dr. Ike (or just enjoy cringe comedy), you’ll like it. But if you see something familiar in Marty, even just a little bit, you may wonder why you’re putting yourself through such a thing.
The Shrink Next Door premieres on Apple TV+ November 12th.