I will admit it, the last few weeks have been pretty dark in terms of my film recommendations since it has included two end of the world films (Miracle Mile and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) and a nuclear threat thriller (The Manhattan Project). Then again, so have a lot of my choices over the past year in this blog. My wife often chides me for my taste in film, but I can’t really help it. I am often drawn to tales of darkness, despair and anything that makes me feel better about my own lot in life. But this week, and the next few weeks, I will try to focus on more favorable fare. There are plenty of films that make me truly happy and I will try my best to share that joy.
I’m not sure that Lawrence Kasdan has gotten sufficient recognition for his contributions to American cinema. As a screenwriter he has brought his stamp of genius to Raiders of the Last Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as invigorated the new franchise in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And as a filmmaker on his own he has crafted an eclectic filmography that includes Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, I Love You to Death, Grand Canyon, and French Kiss. Staggering list, isn’t it? What you may missed is possibly his most charming film, 1999’s Mumford.
The film stars an effortlessly amiable Loren Dean as the title character, a con man of sorts who is pretending to be a psychiatrist in the idyllic small town of Mumford (he chose the name first before finding the town). The film has a star-studded cast that includes Hope Davis, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodward, Ted Danson, Martin Short, Pruitt Taylor Vance, Dana Ivey, Jason Lee, David Paymer, Jane Adams, Zooey Deschanel, Jason Ritter, Elisabeth Moss, and even Robert Stack hosting a pivotal episode of Unsolved Mysteries. The fact the such a cast couldn’t attract a box office audience in the late 90’s still mystifies me, but I digress.
We watch as “Dr. Mumford” navigates the town and its inner circles, becoming popular for his treatment of patients. By no means is this part of an elaborate con, we learn that “Mumford” is just someone trying to escape his past, start over, and perhaps atone for his perceived sins. Over the course of the film he ruffles some feathers when he takes a huge chunk of patients from the actual professionals played by David Paymer and Jane Adams. His style is somewhat indirect but always honest like when he fires an uptight attorney played by Martin Short for being, well, himself. “Mumford” makes strides with other patients by listening and finding ways to connect without falling back on the cliched response of “so, how does that make you feel?” I especially like the way he encourages Pruitt Taylor Vance’s pulp romance fantasies until he finds a fellow aficionado.
Things get complicated when he comes across his most challenging patient played by Hope Davis. She has recently returned home after a devastating divorce and is suffering from crippling lethargy. In a very entertaining sequence, we see “Mumford” look up her symptoms online, interspersed with their sessions and start treating her accordingly – sort of a precursor to WebMD. The two fall in love, and while this is the thrust of the ensuing action of the film the most intriguing relationship happens between “Mumford” and the local billionaire played by Jason Lee.
Lee is kind of riffing on his already established cinematic slacker persona but in a good way. His backstory is that he has made a fortune with a state-of-the-art modem and that the town’s economy relies on his company and plentiful jobs. This has caused him undue stress and pressure and while he seeks help, such optics would cause his stock to plummet. So, he hires “Dr. Mumford” to be his friend and treat him during their nature walks and baseball catches. The by-play between Dean and Lee is priceless.
Eventually the town catches on, especially when a certain TV show airs a detailed episode about a stranger at large. Thankfully, while the film feels like it could zag into a truly dark third act, Kasdan and the cast keep everything grounded and astonishingly light in this modern version of a Frank Capra landscape. While the entire cast is first rate, I would be remiss if did not mention the luminous performance of Alfre Woodward as the local diner owner. Sure, she shades a bit as a “Magic Negro” but her presence is welcome as well as her surprising romance.
Mumford is charming, insightful and a reminder about how sometimes the most obvious answer is right there in front of you all along. Not sure what else Lawrence Kasdan has to offer but as long he stays away from any future Stephen King adaptations (Dreamcatcher, really?) we in the cinematic community will be eternally grateful.