"Big Chill" director Lawrence Kasdan has come up with yet another self-consciously witty ensemble comedy featuring a memorable gaggle of misfits in "Mumford." But unlike "Grand Canyon," his superlative 1991 comedy-drama of Los Angeles manners, "Mumford" goes the Frank Capra route, undermining the movie's more eccentric charms.
The movie's title derives both from the town in which it is set and from a psychologist who works there. Played by Loren Dean with a never-changing passive smile, Mumford has recently arrived and set up shop on the town's pretty main street. And the young doctor has succeeded in attracting a significant clientele, mainly by listening politely until he's bored -- at which point he's likely to tell the patient to shut up and leave. When criminal attorney Lionel Dillard (Martin Short in a characteristically hilarious performance) gets that treatment, he decides to run Mumford out of business.
Mumford, who shares the most notable foibles of his clients with his landlady, Lily (Alfre Woodard), enjoys a genial but distant relationship with the citizens of Mumford until he takes on two new clients, both of whom get under his skin in distinctly different ways. Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis), a lithe, sad-eyed young woman suffering chronic fatigue, makes Mumford reconsider the ethics of becoming involved with one's patients. And high-tech CEO Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee), a desperately lonely skateboarding billionaire, becomes the last thing Mumford was looking for -- a friend.
Filmed in the slightly surreal sunny tones that gave "The Truman Show" and "Pleasantville" their otherworldly glow, "Mumford" shares with those films an off-center, low-key tone, one that looks at its characters with bemused affection, yet it manages to imbue its leading character with just a whiff of menace.
Dean isn't nearly charismatic or mysterious enough to play such an odd cipher, but Kasdan has assembled a stellar cast of supporting players to lend this low-key tale some interest. Mary McDonnell has the film's most compelling moment as a compulsive shopper having a breakthrough in Mumford's office. Lee -- best known for his role as the chagrined best friend in "Chasing Amy" -- uses his gift for deadpan intensity to bring a sketchy role to life. And David Paymer, Ted Danson and Short -- whose mugging would be wildly out of place if it weren't so funny -- all provide bold brush-strokes in an otherwise bland story.
"Mumford's" gentility is welcome at a time when bombast and bigness threaten to carry the day. And its wholesome, if toothless, humanism will be a tonic to audiences longing for better-behaved movies than the usual Hollywood fare. It's too bad that Kasdan found it necessary to resolve the action by pairing his characters off, Noah's Ark-like, by the film's end. That gambit is an unfortunate cliche in a movie that prides itself on its quirks.
Starring Loren Dean, Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Rated R (sex-related images, language and drug content)
Running time 111 minutes
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Sun score **1/2