There is great farcical potential in the idea of a small-town shrink who not only knows everybody’s most intimate problems but also tells everyone else about them, but “Mumford” scarcely begins to fulfill it. Far too polite and genteel, this comedy about a fraudulent psychologist with unorthodox but beneficial couchside manner sees writer-director Lawrence Kasdan operating on only a fraction of his cylinders. Buena Vista release generates a few chuckles along the way, but it’s neither funny, heartwarming nor star-powered enough to motivate the public to turn out in very large numbers.
Juicy black-and-white faux film noir opening instantly puts one in mind of Kasdan’s debut picture, “Body Heat,” which in turn recalls the strong work Kasdan can deliver when he’s on his game. But it turns out that this tough guy intro is merely a fantasy being related by Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the town’s tubby, bald and bespectacled pharmacist, to Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean). Mumford, who just happens to share his name with the town, has been here for little more than four months and already has more patients than do the local shrinks of long-standing, Drs. Ernest Belbanco (David Paymer) and Phyllis Sheeler (Jane Adams).
The secret to Mumford’s success seems to have something to do with his empathetic listening skills and matter-of-fact frankness, his willingness to calmly point out his patients’ foibles and how they’re fooling themselves. This is certainly true with Althea Brockett (Mary McDonnell), a mail-order shopaholic , and Nessa Watkins (Zooey Deschanel), a faintly rebellious teenager.
But in unusual cases, and the only ones in the picture that become remotely interesting, the doc extends himself in special ways. Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee) is a high-tech multibillionaire who is single-handedly responsible for Mumford’s robust economy but still rides his skateboard through town, says “far out” in virtually every sentence and hires the shrink to hang out, play catch and just be his friend. He could also use help in finding a girlfriend, since he’s never had a successful relationship.
Even more appealing to Mumford is Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis), an attractive young divorcee so overcome with what she believes is chronic fatigue syndrome that she can barely leave the house. Mumford’s creative solution is to hold sessions while taking her on long walks just to get her moving again. They also begin falling in love.
Given the rather extraordinary absence of conflict and excitement in all of this, Kasdan throws in a little melodrama involving Mumford’s lack of proper medical credentials. Leading the effort to expose the fraud is mean-spirited attorney Lionel Dillard (Martin Short), apparently the only patient ever dissatisfied with Mumford’s techniques.
There is really very little more than this going on in the film, but, if anything, Kasdan’s direction here is even less energized than his writing. Despite the widescreen format, visuals and cutting have a very TV feel; most scenes feature just two characters, often in the doctor’s office, shown in very elementary cross-cutting. Lenser Ericson Core’s images lack vibrancy, with the colors often somewhat murky and unattractive.
Performances are just OK, far from inspired; everyone, in front of and behind the camera, has done much more creative work on previous occasions. Dean’s low-key approach is a plausible and generous choice since it allows his numerous co-stars to grab the spotlight whenever they’re on, but all the same it’s not too exciting. Thesp here bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Charles Grodin. Lee’s winning personality comes through loud and clear, and Davis does an agreeably underplayed job.
Alfre Woodard is in briefly as Mumford’s landlady, cafe owner and potential new friend to Skip.