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MUMFORD

by: Michael Dequina

Loren Dean is Mumford, the leading psychiatrist in the small town that shares his name. To paraphrase the press notes, while Mumford the town has its share of secrets, Mumford the shrink has the biggest of all. This secret, treated in the film as a surprise but divulged by the film's advertising campaign, is simple: Mumford is no licensed psychotherapist.

So who is Mumford, exactly? While writer-director Lawrence Kasdan comes up with a strangely convoluted backstory, it boils down to one simple thing: he's a nice guy. And what is Mumford, exactly? Simply a nice film. But that's not as much of a compliment as it sounds.

This light ensemble comedy is pleasant to watch, and a lot of that ease can be traced to the film's appealing ensemble cast, namely its standout players. Hope Davis shines as Sofie Crisp, the chronically-fatigued patient for whom Mumford develops an unprofessional attraction. Jason Lee is, to borrow his character's catchphrase, "far out" as another of Mumford's patients, Skip Skipperton, a young billionaire with a knack for skateboarding (a characteristic that gives Lee the opportunity to flaunt the skills that won him a number of international titles in his pre-acting career). Alfre Woodard radiates an inviting warmth as diner owner Lily, who is also Mumford's landlord.

I make no mention of Dean, and that is not an accidental oversight. There is nothing particularly wrong with this performance, and his gentle demeanor goes a long way in making the audience believe that people would want to open up to him. It's just that as a screen presence, Dean is completely faceless, which makes him a perfect match for his character, which similarly has neither quirks nor a distinct identity. And that's the film's central flaw; the only thing that is certain about Mumford is, as mentioned before, that he's a nice guy. While that indeed makes for a likable protagonist, that doesn't make for a terribly interesting one.

The same can be said of the film's trite point. There are a couple of other (and bonafide) shrinks in town, Dr. Ernest Delbanco (David Paymer) and Dr. Phyllis Sheeler (Jane Adams), but more people turn to Mumford. Not only is he easier to talk to, here's the kicker--unlike those two, he actually helps people. Yes, the message of this film is the painfully obvious: Mumford may not have a license, but his therapy works, and that's what matters.

The banality of Mumford wouldn't have mattered all that much if the film had enough laughs, but those are in short supply. Most come from a running gag involving the television show Unsolved Mysteries, and the film's most comically promising character, a slimy lawyer played by Martin Short, is barely a presence in the film. So what's left are one half of an interesting romance (the beguiling Sofie deserves someone with a bit more zest than Mumford) and a handful of smiles. Nice, yes. But nothing all that especially memorable.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)

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