The new psychologist in quiet, residential Mumford is also named Mumford. As played by Loren Dean, Dr. Mumford is a clean-cut cipher: After only four months on the job, he's the talk of the town, but nobody knows much about him. He's a good listener -- that's the key to his rapid rise -- and yet he's also a straight shooter. When, for example, a smart-ass local lawyer (Martin Short) takes to the couch and starts singing his own praises, Mumford can't take it and throws him out. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, Mumford is about the ways we help, and hide from, one another, and it's a bit too genial, too beneficent. You would think that a movie centering on the deep-rooted troubles of people would be more troubling, but Kasdan assiduously works the middle ground, where he's most content.
What we see is a can-do version of therapy stripped of psychoanalytic jargon or psychotropic drugs (which Mumford, not being an M.D., can't prescribe anyway). It's all about good listening, straight talk, direct action, but Kasdan is also realistic about the benefits. The changes worked by Mumford on his patients are noticeable but not monumental. He might not be doing much more for them than what a chummy bartender or a minister might do. His psychologist's credentials certify his expertise, yet when those credentials are cast in doubt, it hardly seems to matter in the end. People want to talk about their problems, and Mumford hears them out. That makes him something of a guru to the town's many malcontents, who are never listened to.
Most of the movies we've been seeing lately about the underside of white-picket-fence Americana -- such as The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and American Beauty -- exaggerate the hypocrisy and the horror. (The exaggeration can be as much of a crock as the sunniness it replaces.) Mumford emphasizes the mildness; the underside isn't very different from the topside. For Kasdan, psyches don't run deep, and the goodness people project isn't a false front -- as it so often is in those other films -- but a true rendering. What's more, people, and their problems, don't really change from era to era. The town of Mumford seems to be caught, along with its inhabitants, in a kind of time warp: It's vaguely fifties, but shards of practically every other decade in the century also show through.
Mumford seems the most old-fashioned when it attempts to be topical. Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis), who has come home to live with her uncomprehending family because she believes she has chronic-fatigue syndrome, gets taken out for walks by Mumford, and their genial strolls are like excursions in Mayberry. Another patient, Althea Brockett (Mary McDonnell), who is married to a high-octane investment banker (Ted Danson) probably more in need of therapy than she is, has a compulsive shopping habit fed by the mail-order mill. She's about as disturbing as a sitcom matron. A chubby pharmacist named Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince) recounts his sex fantasies to Mumford, which are enacted on the screen as naughty, imaginary film-noir playlets. Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee), who gets around on his skateboard, is virtually friendless because, as the billionaire founder of a computer-modem company based in Mumford, he employs a good part of the townspeople, and they're not comfortable hanging out with the boss. Skip hires Mumford to be his pal, but you get the feeling they'd be pals anyway; they play catch and amble into the hills overlooking the neighborhood. Skip's top-secret project, which he confides to Mumford, is the building of a "gender-specific sex surrogate" -- a sex doll that responds like the real thing. The way the film presents this novelty, we might as well be looking at a super-duper student-science-fair project. This movie has a way of cleaning up everything.
Kasdan may think he's offering up a jargon-free movie about the ways of therapy, but actually he's operating in a zone of psychobabble. With Mumford acting as their sounding board, his patients come to realize their own innately decent selves; he instinctively knows what they want, and he's nonjudgmental. The purity of their hearts transforms his own. And he's not only a healer but a matchmaker -- many of his people end up pairing off. There's a sweetness to some of the stories: Hope Davis, especially, has such a marvelously expressive face that it's painful to see her zonked by whatever is zonking her, and when she warms to Mumford the flesh tones come back into her features and the film briefly becomes magical.
But Mumford himself never transforms before our eyes into something spectacular. Dean plays him like a blank with a mystery in his past. When we find out the mystery, he's still a blank. The film is about how we all have it in our power to start over -- to leave our lives for another, better one. It's a peculiarly American notion, I suppose, and in this context, it's not very convincing. Although we're meant to regard his life changeover as the exercise of a free man in a free society, Mumford is actually pretty creepy. He comes across more like a con man than like a lost soul who has found redemption; the humbled person he finally becomes seems just another guise. In a darker movie this might be effective, but Kasdan isn't working that side of the street. For him, Mumford is a homespun original whose duplicity serves a higher truth. What you feel watching Mumford is that its director has been bamboozled right along with the good doctor's patients. It's a classic case of transference: Kasdan has fallen in love with his therapist.