Screenplay : Lawrence Kasdan
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Loren Dean (Mumford), Hope Davis (Sofie Crisp), Jason Lee (Skip Skipperton), Alfre Woodard (Lily), Mary McDonnell (Althea Brockett), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Henry Follett), Zooey Deschanel (Nessa Watkins), Martin Short (Lionel Dillard), David Paymer (Dr. Ernest Delbanco), Jane Adams (Dr. Phyllis Sheeler), Dana Ivey (Mrs. Crisp), Kevin Tighe (Mr. Crisp), Ted Danson (Jeremy Brockett)
In "Mumford," writer/director Lawrence Kasdan puts on his display his greatest asset: his ability to create vivid, eccentric, and utterly likable characters.
As both a screenwriter and a director, Kasan excels at creating an indelible cast a characters who are just odd enough to stand out, but always human enough to feel real. Whether that be his work on big-budget Lucas/Spielberg extravaganzas like "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), or his own personal movies like "Body Heat" (1981), "The Big Chill" (1983), "The Accidental Tourist" (1988), and "Grand Canyon" (1991), Kasdan has proved himself to be one of the greatest character writers of the last twenty years.
"Mumford" features another extraordinary array of characters, and Kasdan builds in a perfect device to highlight and contain their eccentricities: the majority of them are patients of Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), a new psychologist who has recently arrived in the small town of (coincidentally) the same name. Apparently, Dr. Mumford is so good at what he does, that he has taken much of the business away from the town's other two shrinks, Dr. Ernest Delbanco (David Paymer) and Dr. Phyllis Sheeler (Jane Adams). (It is even worth noting that only in the '90s would a town the size of Mumford have three therapists in it?)
Mumford's patients range from an overweight pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) whose circa-1940s sexual imagination (which is visualized to film noir perfection, voice-over and all, in several dream sequences) has caused his wife to leave him, to a wealthy housewife (Mary McDonnell) who is obsessed with mail-order shopping, to a pretty young woman named Sofie (Hope Davis) who suffers from a rare condition that causes her to be perpetually tired. One of the most memorable patients is Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee), a likable young mogul who has made billions in the computer industry but still wears tee-shirt and acts like a teenager. Skip is the type who would name his multi-billion dollar company "Panda Modem" (that name is priceless) and then build a giant skateboarding ramp in front of the building.
In a series of short sequences, Kasdan sketches in each of these characters and their relations with Dr. Mumford, and then begins to build an interweaving web of exchanges in which the various characters come together, all under Dr. Mumford's watchful, but not intrusive gaze. He finds ways for all these people to by happy, and most of his solutions are simple to the point of bordering on common sense.
The point seems to be a not-so-subtle low blow to the psychological community: fancy Freudian theories and case studies of mental patients don't do any good in helping everyday people with real problems. This is never epitomized so clearly as when Dr. Mumford goes to dinner with Dr. Delbanco and Dr. Sheeler, and while they prattle on about their various methods of "curing" their patients, Dr. Mumford professes that he simply listens. Imagine that: in today's chaotic cacophony of modern culture, someone who just wants to listen.
Of course, Kasdan has one other trick he throws in halfway through the movie: Dr. Mumford is not a real psychologist. He doesn't have a license, he knows next to nothing about the field (one scene shows him looking up disorders on the Internet), and all his papers are forged. Like many of his patients, he is a man escaping his past by trying to assume a new identity (in his case, literally).
In terms of medical ethics, this is a travesty; yet, Kasdan somehow manages to make the whole thing not only sensible, but acceptable. Dr. Mumford is so good at what he does precisely because he does not have a degree in psychology. He is closer to his patients and more willing to listen because he understand them as people, not just as disorders (it's essentially a restrained and workable version of the argument "Patch Adams" tried to make last year in its own hackneyed manner).
Whether or not you agree with movie's nonchalance about the breach of trust involved in impersonating a psychologist and taking patients' lives into unprepared hands will in a large sense determine your response to "Mumford." I profess that I had problems with this plot development at first, but the movie's simple charm and humane outlook overcame any lingering doubts. Dr. Mumford, despite his past mistakes, is truly a decent person, and it is that decency that ultimately allows him to help his patients.
A budding romance between Dr. Mumford and Sofie is by far the movie's weakest element, an unmoving love story that feels clumsily inserted into an otherwise interesting and often comedic exploration of human interaction. Perhaps the romance stands out because it so lousy in its predictability, while the rest of "Mumford" showcases Kasdan and the characters he writes at their most unpredictable and, therefore, most fascinating.
©1999 James Kendrick