Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Patients Rewarded

By Noel Murray

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  Pauline Kael once said of director Sydney Pollack that his name on a picture guaranteed nothing to the filmgoer--you might see Tootsie and be so delighted and impressed that you blunder and watch The Firm. The same caution applies to Lawrence Kasdan. Like many Hollywood journeymen, Kasdan has some stellar credits to his name (the scripts for The Empire Strikes Back and Continental Divide; the entirety of The Accidental Tourist), some howlers (his last two directorial efforts, French Kiss and Wyatt Earp), and some overpraised fluff (The Big Chill and Grand Canyon). The only thing to take for granted on walking into Mumford, Kasdan's latest writer-director credit, is that the film will likely defy all preconceived notions.

Loren Dean stars in Mumford as Doctor Mumford, a thriving psychologist in the quaint small town of--get this--Mumford. As the film opens, we get a sample of Doc's patients--a divorced pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) with pulpy sex fantasies, a rich housewife (Mary McDonnell) with a shopping addiction, and a slutty teen (Zooey Deschanel) with a fetish for fashion magazines--and we get the flavor of the almost resort-like Mumford community.

Then we meet two new customers at the doctor's practice. The first is a beguiling woman (Hope Davis) suffering from chronic fatigue, whom Doc treats by escorting her on long, romantic walks. The second is a lonely billionaire (Jason Lee), whom Doc treats by becoming a buddy, playing catch, and telling his other patients' secrets. And just when his professional ethics can't slip any lower, Mumford floors his wealthy friend by confiding a remarkable secret of his own.

Anyone who's seen a commercial for Mumford will know what the shrink's secret is, but I'm not going to spill it here, for two reasons. First, Kasdan has carefully paced his film--by focusing on the interesting problems of the patients, not their doctor--so that the revelation will be both surprising and a little overwhelming. Second, the skeleton in Mumford's closet is so jarring that it might lead you to believe that the whole film is about that skeleton, and though that may have been the intention of those loose-lipped commercials (to play up the film's wacky comedy angle), announcing such a bold-faced premise actually does Kasdan's work a disservice.

Because the real surprise in Mumford is that the humor is gentle and supports a humane theme. Resisting the urge to play his characters' obsessions and phobias for cheap laughs, Kasdan rather looks at them all sympathetically and finds a common yearning. The people of Mumford are largely trapped by consumerist dreams--a shared desire to find happiness through the acquisition of products, styles, and mass-media images. But Kasdan is not satirizing or patronizing these people; he seems to understand that even in a lovely, upscale American town, the citizens can be haunted by visions of an even better life.

In fact, Kasdan may be understanding to a fault; Mumford could use a bit more bite. As has often happened in the director's career, he loves the characters he creates too much to leave them miserable and thirsting, even when that would be the most logical and useful way for the story to go. Instead, after 90 minutes or so of group gut-spilling (sometimes amusing, more often touching), Kasdan pairs everybody off and declares a happy ending.

Well, it's a comedy, and an engaging one, so we'll forgive Kasdan his lapses. But if he wants to know why he remains a minor filmmaker with the potential for both greatness and disaster, Kasdan just needs to start with Mumford and work his way back.

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