Mumford posterMumford (1999)

Starring Loren Dean, Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell, David Paymer, Zooey Deschanel, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Ted Danson, Martin Short, Jane Adams.
Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Grade: B+

Review by Dana Knowles.

Mumford is an odd little movie, better described by listing all of the things that it is not. It is not cinematic. It is not plot-driven. It is not a character study. It is not a drama. Or even really a comedy, by today's standards anyway... though it has many, many small laughs and pleasures. It's just a quiet little movie with some people in it. There's a story arc, but not much of one. Mostly, it's a "script" movie, existing to give us a window on a little world where people do and say some fairly sweet and amusing things. The primary focus of the film is Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), who works as a therapist in the small town of (coincidence?) Mumford. He's an unusual therapist, to say the least. He's straightforward and honest, dismissing clients early if they're getting nowhere and he's tired of listening to them. He's a low-key guy... almost too low-key to be the central character in a movie. In the long run, however, this does make sense and does bring about a modest payoff by the end.

His clients are eccentric and somewhat twisted, but not grotesquely so. Most of them are decent people who manifest their dissatisfactions by living functionally self-destructive lives... just like the rest of us. Mary McDonnell is a wealthy housewife with a serious shopping jones. Martin Short is an attorney with delusions of grandeur. Zooey Deschanel is a teenage rebel fixated on the glamorous bodies she sees in magazines. Pruitt Taylor Vince is a pharmacist who fantasizes elaborate erotic scenarios for himself, but casts a more handsome man in the role.

The best of the clients is Skip Skipperton, who is played by the unbelievably adorable Jason Lee. I love Jason Lee! He's not really much of an actor. His range probably runs from A to B at best. But he has the most effortlessly charming screen presence imaginable, and I'd sit through almost anything if I knew he had a substantial role. In Mumford, his role is substantial... which means that the movie is definitely worth seeing. Skip is a young billionaire, made inordinately wealthy by his company's huge share of the modem market. This makes him the town patriarch... a role that brings him no pleasure, and makes it impossible to connect to other people. Women in particular. They're so fixated on his wealth that they can't see Skip at all. Of course... if he were really Jason Lee as Skip, this wouldn't be a problem if I were living in Mumford. But I digress.... Skip seeks out Dr. Mumford and hires him to be his friend... to hang out and chat and toss a baseball and maybe figure out why he can't seem to find a girl. Mumford is fine with this, and a nice little friendship ensues.

The other interesting and unconventional client relationship that develops is with Sofie (Hope Davis), a young woman who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, which makes her a prisoner in her parents' home. Once we meet her mother, that Turkish prison in Midnight Express starts to look like a more alluring place to be trapped. Sofie and the good doctor spend hours together, mostly walking and talking and bonding. There's no doubt they'll end up romantically attracted to one another. But that's okay... because this isn't the kind of movie that thrives on high drama. It's all in the little moments, which are plentiful.

There are dozens of small throwaway lines that would be high-points in the script for any other movie. Here, they are sprinkled about like rose petals... just making it a nice place to be for 96 minutes. There are a couple of brief appearances that are delightful, particularly Ted Danson as McDonnell's workaholic slimeball of a husband and Dana Ivey as the Mother from Hell. But the lightweight nature of the film will probably render it meaningless and dull to the average viewer. Kasdan's films are always pretty superficial, but this one tops them all in that regard. Most of the characters and relationships are left undeveloped beyond their general progression to a healthier state. Alfre Woodard (one of my absolute favorite actresses!) is woefully underused in her role as Mumford's landlady and best friend. And when they finally give her character a story line, it's never really pursued on screen. Drat!

Still, what is on screen is never boring. And the steady accumulation of modest charms was sufficient to make me like the film quite a bit. That, and Jason Lee. (Did I mention how much I love Jason Lee?) Yes, it could be better. It could have more substance. It could be funnier. It could be more touching. It could be more of a lot of things. But all the things it does have (writing and performances, mostly) are nothing short of likable. And as lukewarm as my response may sound, I'm really looking forward to watching it again. It's the filmic equivalent of a nice little Bed & Breakfast you discover on a long trip. Quiet and charming and unpretentious. Just plain nice. Sometimes, simple pleasures are enough.

Review © September 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
© 1999 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

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