Have you heard? The only tools a nice fellow needs to repair the damaged psyches of an entire town are a guilty conscience and a dash of insight. That, at least, is the premise of Lawrence Kasdan's silly new social parable, Mumford, in which the eponymous hero poses as a psychologist and, despite being unlettered and unread in the field, brings peace, fulfillment and love to all the troubled souls who recline on his brown corduroy couch. Or play catch with him. Or walk in the woods with him.
It's a pretty conceit and a pretty insubstantial one -- akin to the belief that picking up house paint and a spatter gun at the hardware store will turn you into Jackson Pollock. Or that good intentions will make you Jesus Christ. Our Mumford, who practices his craft in a town that's also called Mumford, comes straight out of the Forrest Gump School of Interpersonal Magic, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Never mind that assorted medical societies and licensing bodies will likely go mental at the idea of an impostor out-shrinking the head shrinkers. It defies citizen-in-the-street, nonprofessional sense as well.
In any event, writer-director Kasdan is no stranger to mushy Hollywood fantasy. Consider the way he romanticized the '60s in The Big Chill, or the ponderous urban soul-searching of Grand Canyon. Clearly, the man wants to be more than a filmmaker; he never hesitates to don the pop philosopher's robe.
The still-boyish Loren Dean (late of Enemy of the State and Gattaca) plays the title character as an unassuming messiah who wears a mysterious little grin and an $89.95 sports jacket. Almost from the beginning, we can see that Doc Mumford's a guy with a secret life or a secret past, which is to say that almost from the beginning we know he's a fraud.
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But that doesn't keep the Elmer Gantry of psychotherapy from providing succor to the pudgy local druggist (Pruitt Taylor Vince), whose pulp-fiction fantasies about a boarding house and its sexy landlady barely conceal his shattered self-respect. Or to the alienated teenager (Zooey Deschanel) who lives her other life in the pages of Vogue. Or the local boy billionaire, Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee), who has made a cool $3 billion manufacturing computer modems but no progress in finding love. Meanwhile, Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis) suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, which means that it's almost as hard for her to stay awake as it is for us as we watch this movie. You can tell from the git-go that Mumford will fall for her.
"I don't know what's real and what isn't," he allows. "That isn't my strong suit." Of that, Kasdan tries to make a movielong obsession, even a minor religion. The computer billionaire is now developing pneumatic sex robots in his secret lab, and he can't tell how real they are. An unhappy wife and mother named Althea Brockett (Mary McDonnell) is compelled to order from gift catalogues, and she doesn't know what's real, emotion-wise. The local restaurant owner, Lily (Alfre Woodard), has exchanged romance for hot showers, and she doesn't know what she wants, either.
But the fictional Doc Mumford can fix them all up. He speaks openly about his patients' quirks and traumas (the funniest element of the movie), and he has to research every mind disorder via computer so he'll sound as if he knows what he's talking about. But hell, by the end of the proceedings, even the town's "legitimate" therapist, Ernest Delbanco, M.D. (David Paymer), is coming to Mumford for advice. In fact, the only thing Doc Mumford can't seem to put right is the reality of his own past. It is, quite literally, an Unsolved Mystery, and TV host Robert Stack pops in to tell us more about it.
How much longer need we go on? While diddling with dime-store metaphysics, Kasdan wants us to consider Big Questions. What's expertise? Who's really a pretender? Doesn't anyone who has made a major mistake deserve a second chance? What's the secret to life and the value of love? Okay, fine. But the dreamy, cartoon-strip quality of Mumford and its sheer goofiness, rather than lightening the load of such concerns, render them almost weightless -- as if they don't matter at all. And for these two hours, they don't.