Lawrence Kasdan's Mumford is a genial, bland powder-puff picture that explores a smalltown milieu not too far removed from Capra or Cookie's Fortune. Altman's film, while minor in his canon, was sharply observed and brimming with vibrant characters. Despite an intriguing premise-virtually an entire town is held in a phony psychotherapist's thrall-Mumford is a frustrating, mundane piece of filmmaking that only serves to emphasize the spottiness of Kasdan's post-Body Heat output.
Kasdan's script finds young, handsome Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean) showing up in a little hamlet that happens to share his last name. In no time at all, he quickly snares more patients than the burg's other two shrinks (played with bickering zest by David Paymer and Jane Adams) combined. What's his secret? Well, Mumford isn't much of a talker, and he'll even cut patients off mid-thought. His approach is refreshingly free of psychobabble, but he empathizes effectively with his couch-dwellers and gets them to freely release their most personal problems and anxieties. In truth, the doctor is anything but a credentialed medical man, but is in fact an ex-IRS investigator hiding a past that contains a nasty cocaine habit and a stint in a rehab center run by monks. His patients include a pudgy pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who has pulpy, film noir-ish sexual fantasies, a catalog shopaholic (Mary McDonnell), and an unhappy teenage girl (Zooey Deschanel) obsessed with fashion magazines. But these patients can hardly sustain a movie, and are far less interesting than the two cases he sees outside the office. Jason Lee appealingly plays Skip Skipperton, a somewhat sheepish high-tech billionaire who bemoans the fact that even though he makes 23 percent of the world's computer modems, he can't connect with one single woman. Skipperton's just a regular guy who skateboards and spends his free time trying to construct the perfect sex surrogate in his workshop. Hope Davis provides some romantic spark as divorce Sofie Crisp, who's suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Despite the affliction dampening her spirits, Davis's sweet smile has more radiance than anything else Kasdan whips up in this colorless fable. The film's only hint of drama comes when Mumford's past is suddenly exposed on an 'Unsolved Mysteries' episode. When the doctor steps outside and sees the flickering glow of the town's TV screens, you can feel the indignation of the collectively duped.
I kept hoping Kasdan would shape Mumford into a fascinating faker in this Oprah-saturated world where anyone with a captive Nielsen audience can assume the role of healer, but the phony doc's unorthodox ways (which include freely telling one patient the deepest secrets of another) hardly explain his hold on the town. In fact, despite Dean's affability, I found his manner so blase that, good looks aside, it was hard to imagine anyone returning to him after more than one session. Dean's impassivity only highlights his more spirited supporting cast, including scenery-chewing Martin Short as a disgruntled ex-patient and Ted Danson as McDonnell's self-absorbed husband, who enjoys smoking Cuban cigars and pot simultaneously. Of Kasdan's ensemble pieces, The Big Chill was irresistibly slick, and Grand Canyon, though flawed, still felt like the work of a director willing to try to work against the grain. But Mumford's sensibility has been so softened that I couldn't help but take its cheery goodnaturedness as an artistic betrayal.