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Mumford

Review by David Luty
Posted 24 September 1999

Written and Directed by Lawrence Kasdan 

Starring Loren Dean,
Hope Davis, Jason Lee,
Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell,
Pruitt Taylor Vince, Zooey Deschanel,
Martin Short, David Paymer,
Jane Adams, Dana Ivey,
Kevin Tighe, Ted Danson,
Jason Ritter, and Elizabeth Moss

The four-year sabbatical has been good to Lawrence Kasdan who, after a period of apparent artistic deflation with the creation of the disastrously bloated Wyatt Earp and the spiritlessly formulaic romantic comedy French Kiss, has somewhat regained his footing. Heís back with the sort of strong character work at which heís always excelled, breezy stuff with emotional undertows of varying strengths like The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, and The Accidental Tourist. Mumford is significantly lighter than all three, but it carries its own particular weight in the romantic longing it (sometimes) so deftly conveys. The film utilizes a skill Kasdan has always been masterful with, drawing up quirky characters who behave in believably human ways. Itís rare to find quirked-up characters who also arenít precocious and over-mannered, and it requires a certain breezy finesse that seemed to have abandoned Kasdan in his last couple of works.

With that in mind, Loren Dean is just what the doctor ordered. Deanís presence has popped up mostly in the body of fringe characters (Say Anything, Apollo 13, Enemy of the State), but Kasdan isnít the first director to use him in the title role of a Hollywood film (that honor goes to Robert Benton and Billy Bathgate, respectively). Heís just the first one to use him well. A relatively unknown actor whose charisma is muted to say the least, Dean is a stone-faced, emotionally concrete presence, and he treats Kasdanís written lines perfectly -- he throws them away. His staccato rhythms and flat inflections are the perfect tonic for a character many more expressive actors would have turned into ham. You see, Mumford is a single young man who practices psychology with much success in the peacefully rural, tightly knit town of, yes, Mumford, and he has a secret. He has a few of them, actually, but first and foremost is the fact that he isnít quite who he claims to be. In the movieís pat yet truthful conceit, Mumford has more patients than the other two town therapists combined for a very simple reason -- he is good at listening to people. But sometimes he doesnít want to listen, and has no problem cutting a session short when he happens to feel like it. Mumford is an odd bird, a loner who keeps his personal feelings close to the vest and his professional ethics loose. As played by Dean, heís a figure of great fascination, in the way he draws his audience, whether it be the one laying on his couch or the one in the theater, closer to him by his supremely confident calm.

Kasdan, up to a point, shares that confidence, giving Mumford the film a crisp pace and witty, amusing tone, and surrounding Mumford with a number of lively supporting characters, most of whom are or turn out to be his patients. They are played by uniformly accomplished talent, including Martin Short, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnel, Pruitt Taylor Vince, David Paymer, Jane Adams, Ted Danson, and newcomer Zooey Deschanel, as a delicate teen rebel with a predilection for eating disorders and an addiction to fashion magazines. But Kasdanís confidence lags a bit when it comes to this quantity, and by the end of the film he has too many character problems to resolve (and he glibly resolves the problems of every character) and too little nuance to pull it off. He would have been much better off focusing more attention on two of Mumfordís relationships -- his budding friendship with young billionaire industrialist Skip Skiperton, played with a wonderfully sweet innocence by the usually smart-assed Jason Lee, and his budding romance with patient Sofie Crisp, played by Hope Davis with a winning combination of toughness and vulnerability. Neither budding relationship quite gets the opportunity they deserve to bloom, and thatís because Kasdan almost forgets what gives Mumford, the movie, its likeably easygoing life. Itís Mumford, stupid. Not the town and its Hollywood homespun inhabitants, which is the type of small-town America that exists only in movies (and lots of Ďem), but Mumford, the character, the likes of whom has never taken center stage in a Hollywood movie before.


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