1999, Kasdan/Touchstone. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Loren Dean, Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell, Martin Short, Ted Danson.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Nudity and sexual content, including depictions of erotic fantasies and flashbacks of adultery; some rough language and profanity; flashbacks of drug addiction and other depictions of drug usage.
By Steven D. Greydanus
"My method?" muses Dr. Mumford, the new psychologist in the town of Mumford, who, in the film Mumford, has been asked to dinner by the two established therapists of Mumford (the town, not the psychologist or the film). "I don’t have one really. Most of the time I’m faking it. You see, I think there’s not much that can be done about most problems. They’re too complicated, too deep-rooted by the time I hear about them. The most I can do, usually, is look, listen really closely, and try to catch some glimpse of the secret life everybody’s got. If I can get a sense of that, maybe, just maybe, I can help them out a little."
A brave admission for a psychologist speaking to his peers; and all the braver in view of Mumford’s own secret life, and the extent to which he really is faking it. If this doesn’t exactly make it a brave premise for a film, at any rate it’s a promising one. After all, this is what many of us, deep down, believe, or at least suppose. The complicated theories of Freud and Jung don’t resonate for us like homespun common sense, friendship, and straight talk. Like Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, who once gave "rent-a-friend" as a definition for psychiatrist, we suspect that what most people really need is someone who will actually listen to them, care about them, and give them an honest opinion. That’s part of what makes Dr. Laura so popular.
I’m the same way myself. Recently when a friend of mine wondered aloud why mechanics and plumbers should make as much money as psychiatrists, my off-the-cuff response was: "Mechanics and plumbers are skilled laborers who fix things sometimes. Why should psychiatrists make as much money as they do?"
I rather expected to enjoy Mumford, a film written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the initial draft of Raiders of the Lost Ark and whose credits include Silverado, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, and Grand Canyon. Mumford promised feel-good comedy gently skewering the pretensions of psychotherapy; and, indeed, does deliver some memorable moments along these lines. This is the sort of film in which a young woman with chronic fatigue syndrome is prescribed long walks with the doctor, and the two of them take up a paper route; and patients who irritate the doctor with their intransigence are liable to get thrown out of his office.
Some of the best moments involve a character named "Skip" Skipperton (Jason Lee), a gawky, unconventional billionaire technology entrepeneur who skateboards around town like a less image-obsessed and more bohemian version of Bill Gates: Skip hires Mumford, not to analyze him, but simply to play catch and hang around with him (which just might have been Mumford’s prescription in any case). And by story’s end all of Mumford’s patients and acquaintances have been tidily paired off with one another in a sort of rolling happily-ever-after climax.
But the gentle comedy is marred, first of all, by jarringly (and unnecessarily) graphic sex and nudity, especially in an unpleasant flashback sequence involving explicit scenes of adultery and cocaine use. This episode is so lurid that one is tempted to wonder if the character telling the story isn’t making it up for the benefit of his listener; until it’s confirmed, at least in part, by subsequent events.
It’s hard to feel good, moreover, about how some of Mumford’s patients wind up, at least without discarding moral considerations. Consider Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an unhappily bald and overweight pharmacist who lives in a world of elaborate sexual fantasies, visualized in melodramatic film-noir style with hard-boiled voice-over narration ("I needed a stiff drink, a cold shower, and a hot broad"). To the film’s credit, it doesn’t overlook the dehumanizing and disenchanting effects that such fantasies invariably have on real life: Asked about his ex-wife, Follett initially blusters, "I left her because she didn’t satisfy me" — but at a barked order from Mumford amends, revealingly: "She left me because I was never satisfied."
Yet as far as Mumford is concerned, Follett’s real problem is that he’s insecure, living his fantasy life as a muscular, tattooed alter ego rather than as himself. The doctor’s rather dubious therapy: a carton of trashy erotica, which (through some psychological principle that’s never quite explained) somehow liberates Follett, who goes on to gleefully imagine his balding, rotund self in the same sort of breathless scenarios as before ("She had ways of making you feel better that they didn’t teach you in nursing school"). Does this make you feel warm and squishy inside? And since he’s now so comfortable with his sexuality, he’s able to hook up with another one of Mumford’s patients, a compulsive mail-order shopper (Mary McDonnell) who’s just been abandoned by her jerk of a husband (Ted Danson). Did Kasdan expect us to be so happy for them that we wouldn’t care that she’s still married?
Follett isn’t the only male in this film who’s got a problem with real women in real life. Skip Skipperton, the skateboarding billionaire, has a secret project that despite misgivings he reveals to Mumford: He’s developing "sexual surrogates": synthetic, gender-specific, anatomically functional sex toys. In his lab we see the partially constructed results of his labors: a bare-breasted torso, a computer-animated female face mouthing come-ons, a from-the-waist-down robot that Skip accidentally activates, causing it to commence gyrating and moaning. Not unreasonably, Skip is afraid that Mumford will be repulsed by this, but the doctor is reassuring: "I think it sounds like a good idea."
What about Mumford himself? Although his secret is hardly a mystery and has been openly mentioned by many critics, I’ll content myself here to observing that, while an individual in Mumford’s shoes could be expected to commit some professional blunders, nevertheless a man with a compromising secret is a man in a vulnerable position, a man with something to lose. He is not a man who is about to draw undue or critical attention to himself, or do obviously unethical things, such as discussing patients’ problems in public. The film makes him too smart for him to also be that stupid.
Or at least, if he is that smart and that stupid — if he’s the kind of person who aims high, goes far, and crashes hard, who sets himself up for disaster — then he’s too complex and contradictory a character to play straight man to this town of eccentrics. And as played by Loren Dean, Mumford certainly is the ultimate straight man. Dean hardly acts at all; he’s a cypher who makes quiet observations and sensible remarks that elicit the desired responses from those around him. And that would be fine, if the redemption of those characters, or even of Mumford himself, were more convincing.
There was potential in this film, but it’s been squandered. Some of the characters have endearing qualities, particularly Sofie (Hope Davis), the young woman Mumford takes for walks; Lily (Alfre Woodard), a neighbor of Mumford’s who owns a café but can’t find a good man, and of course Skip. It’s not hard to play connect-the-dots and pair off likable characters with one another. It’s harder to put them in a story that’s worthwhile. This is a film without conviction, about a town full of people with problems without depth, aided by a guru without soul. Mumford is a fraud. Take that in whatever sense you like.