Friday September 24, 1999

     "Mumford," the latest film from writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, is a slight yet amusing doodle that depends for its success on audience tolerance for the whimsical antics of the small town's worth of genial eccentrics it conjures up.
     Which is kind of poetic justice, because the film's protagonist, young Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), has to be tolerant in his line of work. He's the newest and most successful psychologist in a mythical small town, also called Mumford, where everybody knows everybody else's business.
     Maybe it's because he's so young (Dean, last seen in "Enemy of the State," looks barely old enough to drive), but Dr. Mumford's approach to therapy is a bit unconventional. He occasionally visits patients in their homes, throws them out of his office if he thinks things aren't going well, and even gossips about their problems to other townsfolk.
     But while no one can argue with Dr. Mumford's success or with his ability to empathize with "wanting to leave a problem behind," there is something undeniably odd in his manner, something reserved, even unknowable. Patients naturally reveal themselves to him, and all he offers in return is a cipher-like noncommittal smile.
     Though he's written his share of blockbusters, from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" through "The Bodyguard," much of what Kasdan directs as well as writes has been small-scale and reflective, on the order of "The Big Chill" and "Grand Canyon." His current fable-like effort, which feels like something out of the 1940s, gradually introduces nearly a dozen of the doctor's patients and friends. These include:
     * Althea Brockett (Mary McDonnell), wife of rapacious investment banker Jeremy Brockett (Ted Danson), who buys so much merchandise by mail that her house looks like an overstocked storeroom;
     * Lily (Alfre Woodard), a friend, not a patient, who runs the town's coffee shop and tells anyone who's interested that she's had it with men;
     * Henry Follett ("Heavy's" Pruitt Taylor Vince), the town's overweight pharmacist, who has a strong fantasy life that seems to come right out of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice";
     * Lionel Dillard (the always amusing Martin Short), the town's slick and aggressive criminal lawyer;
     * Nessa Watkins (Zooey Deschanel, daughter of the fine cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), a teenager who's prone to acting out in very teenage ways;
     * Skip Skipperton ("Chasing Amy's" Jason Lee), the skateboarding young billionaire who founded Panda Modem, "the Monarch of Modems," a company that employs just about everybody in Mumford;
     * Sophie Crisp (Hope Davis), a sickly but acerbic young woman who has returned to her hometown suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and general heart-weariness.
     Though Mumford the town couldn't be more bucolic (it was shot in several Northern California locales), "Mumford" the movie does have several problems to overcome. Not all of its people are as interesting as the film thinks they are, and this includes an uninvolving performance in the title role. Fortunately, thanks to the idiosyncratic strength of actors Lee and Davis, key characters Skip and Sophie are a pleasure to be around.
     Also, the picture's lackadaisical pacing, which pays dividends in its final section, strains our tolerance early on. "Mumford" takes a good long while getting anywhere interesting, counting more on its shaggy dog charm than it perhaps ought to.
     But even if it takes awhile to happen, everything comes together nicely by "Mumford's" final credits. Writer-director Kasdan has a nice way with his oddball crew, and though the resolution may be too tidy for some tastes, those who enjoy the old-fashioned Hollywood pleasure of seeing divergent threads neatly pulled together will be more than satisfied.


Mumford, 1999. R, for sex-related images, language and drug content. Released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Lawrence Kasdan. Producers Charles Okun, Lawrence Kasdan. Screenplay Lawrence Kasdan. Cinematographer Ericson Core. Editors Carol Littleton, William Steinkamp. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Jon Hutman. Art director Wray Steven Graham. Set decorator Beth Rubino. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Loren Dean as Mumford. Hope Davis as Sophie Crisp. Jason Lee as Skip Skipperton. Alfre Woodard as Lily. Mary McDonnell as Althea Brockett. Pruitt Taylor Vince as Henry Follett.