Friday, September 24, 1999

Shrink wrapped

Movie: Mumford

Posted on Fri, Sep 24, 1999 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.50

"Mumford" presents us with one of those classic only-in-the-movies situations: Newly arrived healer wins everyone's hearts, becomes unmasked as imposter, then gains absolution when uplifted citizenry rallies to his defense.

Veteran writer-director Lawrence Kasdan knows his film history better than to simply glom off the Frank Capra-esque roots of such plottery. But he admires it enough to let it form the heart of his good-natured, low-key little comedy. And he shapes his performances well enough that it doesn't really matter that we can see nearly every next move -- way before it arrives. Still, you'll have to look hard to find a movie this year with a heart as sweet as "Mumford."

In fact, Kasdan shows some of his best stuff here, the kind of filmmaking that cemented his reputation: The no-loose-ends detail of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the generational sensitivity of "The Big Chill" and the amiable good humor of "The Accidental Tourist." Kasdan works close to his heart here, too, in some ways more satisfying than his treatise on modern life, "Grand Canyon," and his mismatched romance, "French Kiss."

Loren Dean, a well-regarded but unfamiliar face, plays the title role of the open-faced psychologist whose ability to listen pleasantly conceals the fact that he has no psychological knowledge beyond common sense. Dean's a purposefully blank canvas but is no less likable for it.

Kasdan surrounds Mumford with a quietly amusing array of patients and near-patients, nearly all of whom adore their shrink: Generation-X actor Jason Lee ("Chasing Amy") plays a modem king with a romance deficiency; Alfre Woodard ("Down in the Delta"), a luncheonette operator who's given up on men; Hope Davis ("Next Stop, Wonderland"), a depressed beauty crushed by a domineering mother; Pruitt Taylor Vince ("Heavy"), a fantasy-obsessed pharmacist; Mary McDonnell ("Dances With Wolves"), a smothered wife. TV star Ted Danson adds a nice turn as an overachieving businessman, and Zooey Deschanel of TV's "Victoria's Closet" squirms nicely as teen-age beauty magazine maven.

Kasdan skirts the possibility that the audience will be turned off by Mumford's past, and those distasteful details anchor his oft-asserted theme that everyone ought to get a second chance, whether they deserve it or not. That's a humanistic way around the religious idea of forgiveness, and in the pastoral setting of Mumford's Anytown-U.S.A. atmosphere it lends just enough substance to this essentially featherweight yarn.

For a filmmaker who made his bones with action movies (it's easy to forget he had a hand in writing "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi"), then branched into noir (remember "Body Heat"?), it's really no surprise he'd try his hand at Capra-style comedy. And if the next one he tries is as good as "Mumford," let him go at it again.


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