Mumford (1999)


(director/writer: Lawrence Kasdan; cinematographer: Ericson Core; editors: Carol Littleton/William Steinkamp; cast: 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); Runtime: 115; Touchstone Pictures; 1999)

“There was nothing fantastic about this fantasy film, not even the fantasy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Another pretentious film from director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill/ Silverado/ Grand Canyon/Wyatt Earp). I never saw a film of his that wasn’t artsy-fartsy. This time he created a comedy/fantasy film about a quack psychologist in a small town who subversively discusses his patient’s problems with others.

The film suffers from an interminable case of blandness and exhibits an unwillingness to go beyond its cute little tale to see the dangers of someone who invades another’s personal privacy by pretending to be someone he isn’t, especially in a critical field such as the mental health one. Instead the film focuses on what a wonderful person Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean) is and how by using common sense there is no need to go to school and train for his profession, as long as he can listen. In other words, the film makes the assumption that anyone with sensitivity could be a psychologist. This film was so weak and misleading in purpose, its story so dry and unconvincing. It seemed to get stuck on itself and had no movement for the longest period of time.

The film also makes no attempt to show anything about Mumford’s character or his inner being, except by telling the mere biographical data a TV news report might tell about someone arrested as an impostor. Mumford remains as bland and unknown by the film’s conclusion as he was throughout the film. This guy must have some serious mental problems to do what he did, yet there is no treatment offered for him as he’s the one in the film who needed it the most and his only penalty when caught is a slap-on-the-wrist jail sentence in a country club prison and a heroes acceptance by the town. This is stupidity glorified beyond a point of belief. There was nothing this film had to say that made any sense and to top it off, there was no comedy in this screwball comedy.

Mumford took the name of the town of Mumford, forged his credentials, and became the new psychologist in this once depressed mill town. The town has now recovered thanks to the efforts of a young computer geek named Skip (Jason Lee), who is worth three billion dollars from his Panda Modem Company, whose company produces 23 percent of the world’s modems. Mumford, after being a crooked investigator for the IRS, a drug user, and having an affair with his wife’s partner, goes on the run after the IRS blames him for framing an innocent businessman, who got so depressed that he took his life. He ends up living with monks in a remote part of Arizona before coming to Mumford. He rapidly becomes a very popular therapist, even to his surprise, and catches the jealousy of the town’s two other therapists, Dr. Ernest Delbanco (Paymer) and Dr. Phyllis Sheeler (Jane Adams).

Mumford discovers he can treat those who are lonely and those who have sexual problems, as he treats the following: Skip is lonely, but does not want to be with women he knows only want him for his money; a schoolgirl (Zooey Deschanel) who is self-hating and asocial, is sent for pro bono therapy by her school system to be rehabilitated; a pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who is afraid of his potent sex drive, is told that porno is OK; and, a young lady he falls in love with, who suffers from a chronic fatigue syndrome, Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis), is encouraged to get out of the house and fight her depression. I found the last vignette particularly phony and disconcerting, since the film has the arrogance to say that her illness is merely psychological, which goes against most evidence of the disease and discredits those who suffer from this very real illness. They know that its physical nature is very serious and their treatment requires a competent medical doctor seeing them, not some quack.

Of course, the phony psychologist cures her and in the last act of the film, after he helps everyone he comes into contact with, he confesses his deception. He is told to come clean with his past by Lily (Alfre Woodard), his landlady neighbor, the only black woman seen in town, who owns a popular diner. She is someone who has stopped believing that there is a man around for her. She has enough sense and strength not to need a shrink. She is the one Skip falls in love with and through Mumford’s help they get together.

But before Mumford can tell anyone that he’s a fraud, Robert Stack on the TV program Unsolved Mysteries tells Mumford’s troubled story and asks the public to turn the missing person in.

There was nothing fantastic about this fantasy film, not even the fantasy. It was a film that tried to make you feel good about your problems and tried to show how they would go away if you can just get someone to listen to you — anyone. It was meant to be a likable film like elevator music is meant to be not upsetting. This was a film made up of phony characters, whose problems were surface deep. It was hard for me not to see this film as merely an excuse to justify doing something that is criminal and then explaining that it is OK– look at all those who were helped. If we followed the film’s logic, then it would be OK for someone to pretend to be a surgeon as long as he operated successfully. Let the director get operated on by the quack, as for me I’ll take my chances with the qualified surgeon.