Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Cast: Loren Dean, Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, Zooey Deschanel, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Martin Short, David Paymer, Jane Adams, Ted Danson, Elisabeth Moss.
1999 111 minutes
Rated: (for nudity and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 25, 1999.
"Mumford" would appear to have a great deal going for it, and it does. An extraordinary ensemble cast, resembling that of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan's marvelous previous efforts (1983's "The Big Chill," 1991's "Grand Canyon"); a director who has proven his filmmaking skills many times before; and the fact that it would be primarily character-driven, all gave reason to expect that this would be a bright, winning, and intelligent comedy. Little by little, as the film played itself out, it became abundantly clear that "Mumford" is a prime example of a movie that is played out entirely on the surface, with not a thought or idea beneath the characters' exteriors. What Kasdan has done here is taken a step way down; where his two aforementioned pictures earned points for their knowing human observations and realism, "Mumford" is strictly a television sitcom masquerading as a feature film, and is instantly forgettable once the end credits begin to roll.
The peculiarly-named psychologist, Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), showed up in the quaint, Mayberry-style town of Mumford only three month ago, and the residents are already starting to flock to him, whether they really need therapy or not. Sharing a home with self-named cafe owner Lily (Alfre Woodard), Mumford has the gift to be able to really listen to what people have to say, and more often than not can completely understand and sympathize with their problems. Some of his patients include Althea (Mary McDonnell), a compulsive shopper who is married to a jerk (Ted Danson) and has two worried teenage kids; a pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) with such low self-esteem that he is constantly making up fantasy stories about a large guy with big abs; Nessa (Zooey Deschanel), a rebellious, pretty young girl; and a lawyer (Martin Short) who talks and talks but doesn't seem to have anything worth saying. Seeked out by Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee), an appealing, young technology genius who also happens to be a billionaire and the creator of the Panda Modem, Mumford quickly becomes good friends with him. Later, a possible romance flares up when he is won over by the innocent, kind-hearted Sophie (Hope Davis), who has come to him for help on curing her of her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. At first a little stand-offish, Mumford and Sophie begin to spend some time together, and as they become closer and closer, Sophie's exhaustion gradually vanishes.
If "Mumford" sounds rather aimless and with very little of an actual plot, that's because it is. For 111 minutes, the film is non-stop dialogue, usually between two characters at any given time, and while this has the chance to work wonderfully (see 1995's charming "Before Sunrise," in which two twentysomething strangers get off a train in Vienna and spend the day and night together before going their separate ways), "Mumford" is bogged down by a paper-thin, artificial screenplay, by Kasdan, that never stops feeling "written," and thoroughly mishandles its wide array of characters. The film wanders around without any clear destination, and with very few story or character developments, and therefore, grows monotonous by the half-way mark. It's difficult to dedicate any sort of rooting interest in a group of people who, for the most part, are either uninteresting creations or disappointingly wasted.
With such a strong cast, one wonders what the principle actors were so attracted to with this particular film. On the positive side, there isn't a mediocre performance to be had. On the negative side, the characters are never given a chance to spring to life, because its potential simply is nowhere to be found on the written page. Loren Dean, who appears in almost every scene as Mumford, is low-key and remarkably appealing, one of the most promising, fresh performances this year. His character of Mumford, however, always seems to be standing at arm's length from the audience, and we never really get to know him, aside from the obligatory background info that is told in an overlong, patience-testing flashback.
Hope Davis, the stunningly versatile actress from such pictures as 1997's "The Daytrippers," 1998's "Next Stop Wonderland," and 1999's "Arlington Road," is likable as always as the weary, recently-divorced Sophie. Dean and Davis work well together and have a lot of chemistry, but each of their scenes seem like nothing more than character filler, rather than the natural dialogue that one usually speaks. Their eventual romance, unfortunately, feels too orchestrated on the screenplay level to set off any fireworks.
Jason Lee (1997's "Chasing Amy"), as Skip, forms a nice rapport with Dean, and the friendship that is developed between the two is the film's most effective element. Lonely and constantly used by people who only like him for his money, Skip chooses Mumford to be his buddy because he knows that he wouldn't judge him on a materialistic level, and is overly enthusiastic about the technological inventions he is always cooking up.
Also of note is the effervescent Alfre Woodard, an always-engaging and criminally underappreciated actress who, coincidentally, had a meatier, more satisfying role in Kasdan's powerful "Grand Canyon;" and Zooey Deschanel (daughter of famed director of photography, Caleb Deschanel), in her film debut, who has a natural charisma and authenticity that is absent from every other character in the film. Making no impression in even slighter, criminally empty roles are Jane Adams, so astounding in 1998's "Happiness," as the town's other psychologist; David Paymer as a resident psychiatrist; and Ted Danson, who has all of one scene as McDonnell's husband.
Everything leads up to a courtroom scene that, thankfully, isn't as manipulative as it is just-plain contrived. By the conclusion, the majority of the central characters have either fallen in love with someone, or have become emotionally at ease due to their connection with another, but it is distastefully unjustified. Kasdan has chosen to paint his characters with the broadest, most general strokes possible, and has forgotten to do one thing: develop them. "Mumford" is an intellectually vacant and pointless excursion to a town that is almost frightening in its artificiality. In fact, I wouldn't have been particularly surprised had "The Brade Bunch" made cameos as Mumford's next-door neighbors.
©1999 by Dustin Putman