Rating -

Comedy (US); 1999; Rated R; 96 Minutes

Loren Dean: Mumford
Hope Davis: Sofie Crisp
Jason Lee: Skip Skipperton
Alfre Woodard: Lily
Mary McDonnell: Althea Brockett
Pruitt Taylor Vince: Henry Follett
Zooey Deschanel: Nessa Watkins
Martin Short: Lionel Dillard
Ted Danson: Jeremy Brockett

Produced by Steve Dunn, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Jon Hutman, Lawrence Kasdan and Charles Okun; Directed and screenwritten by Lawrence Kasdan

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Written by DAVID KEYES

It's interesting how someone can get paid simply by listening to other people's problems. Psychiatry is one of those careers that rewards wages with what may seem like minimal effort--sitting in a room with a scratch pad, listening to the heartaches of others, and analyzing their sanity. People for centuries have relied either on hard labor or sturdy education to earn their cash. To them, this field might have seemed like taking an easy way out.

At least that's the first impression. Psychiatrists, and their practice, are actually quite complex and involving, both mentally and psychologically. Aside from the education, one must also have patience, an open mind, sophistication, and most importantly, an ability to listen with insight. This also may help explain why so many human beings would rather have a shrink than be one.

This is part of one of the many issues explored in the charming new comedy "Mumford," from acclaimed director/writer Lawrence Kasdan, who did "The Big Chill" 15 years ago. Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), a man with obvious patience for other people's problems, jumps into the sunny town named Mumford, where he sets up shop and soon finds growing business from several town individuals, all who suffer from either social or psychological trouble. But he doesn't psychoanalyze them like the other shrinks in town. He doesn't offer his own solutions, his own explanations, or anything else for his desperate patients. He just...listens.

But there's a problem in all of this: Mumford's not really a psychiatrist (I spoiled the surprise, so sue me). Oh, everyone who is taken under is care is sure he's a professional (and so do we, to a point), but the man lacks the one thing that every psychiatrist needs--education. In respect to the setup, however, this important detail isn't revealed to the characters until later, thus giving us the chance to buy into the fact that Mumford is genuine material before he reveals his true nature. But try to imagine his discomfort when the certification board shows up in town, looking for answers.

Like "The Big Chill", the ensemble cast dominates "Mumford"s effective but often routine script, interacting together with chemistry so well acted that it frequently explodes on screen. Whereas that 1984 film was more of a drama than a comedy, here is a film dramatic but often extremely hilarious. This is due, in part, to Kasdan's fantastic characterizations; the movie has a psychologist with secrets, yes, but more importantly, patients with fascinating personalities, always explored down to the last detail. Among these players is Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee), an odd man who is more lonely now that he's a zillionaire, and Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis), a woman with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, whom Mumford also falls in love with. The best, surprisingly, is Ted Danson, who plays the local gigolo Jeremy, a man that pays little attention to his money-hungry, shop-fanatic wife Althea (Mary McDonnel), but has no problem with living his own life in luxury.

There was a review I read recently which criticized the fact that Dr. Mumford, this "fake" psychologist, does not get enough screen exposure as his patients do. But I have contradictory outlooks--most psychologists, no matter how involved in their work, choose not to reveal their entire lives to their patients, much less their movies. This is because psychiatrists are listeners, not storytellers. Is it that surprising, then, that this guy feels distant in the plot, even though patients deserve to know everything about the people they are opening up to? Mumford's secrets and desires are only revealed as needed for a screen psychologist, which is very little. The movie is better than one might expect, not because it focuses more on patients than doctors, but also because it brings fresh perspective to a story that has already been seen several times.

In short, "Mumford" is a wise success, a movie that approaches subjects in fresh ways, examines lives with clear distinction, and (here's the most important point) never overlooks the fascinating details. Most movies (mainly comedies) place their emphasis on a plot with predictable results. Here, Kasdan is examining lives, their feelings, and helping them along the way, instead of shrouding them in a plot that is bound by typical convictions.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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