Mumford [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #20]

Earlier this year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #20.  Spoilers ahead.  

Mumford

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Release Date:  September 24, 1999
My age then:  29 years old

What it is about:  Mickey Mumford is an psychologist who practices in the town of Mumford, Oregon, where his unconventional methods make him very popular with the locals. His patients include a rich entrepreneur who hires him to basically be his friend (in order to avoid the unwanted attention that would come if it were known if he was seeing a psychologist) and a divorcee with chronic fatigue syndrome, with whom he begins to all in love. However, Mumford has a secret, and when it is revealed, how will the townsfolk whom he has earnestly been attempting to help react?

Starring Loren Dean as Mumford, Hope Davis as Sofia (the woman with chronic fatigue), Jason Lee as Skip Skipperton (the entrepreneur), Alfre Woodard as Lily (Mumford’s friend who runs a diner), Martin Short as a laywer who becomes suspicious of Mumford, David Paymer and Jane Adams as the town’s only other analysts, and Mary McDonnell, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Zooey Deschanel as some of Mumford’s patients.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  Before researching for this series, I had never heard of it. What drew me to it was that it starred Loren Dean (an actor I appreciate from Apollo 13) and that it was directed by Lawrence Kasdan (a filmmaker I appreciate from The Accidental Tourist).

Reality:  Mumford is a decent movie, delivering a slightly awkward blend of comedy and drama, which is facilitated somewhat by the fact that the story withholds a key piece of information about the main character until about halfway through the story. Up until them, the film simply seems to be about the character Mumford functioning as a sort of window into the quirky lives of his various patients–sort of like a big screen version of The Bob Newhart Show. Something does seem to be a little bit up with the guy, but we don’t know what and the movie doesn’t seem to be dwelling on this.

Then suddenly we get hit with Mumford’s dark and tragic backstory, including the big twist that he isn’t a licensed psychologist at all. From then on, the movie is about the man himself–who is he? Why does he do what he does? What is he really after?

The truth, it turns out, is surprisingly straight-forward considering that it’s to do with a man whose whole life is based on a series of lies. And the truth is that aside from his name and his credentials, Mumford is exactly who he seems to be. He has no secret agenda, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, he isn’t trying to con anyone. He’s just a guy with a broken past who has found a way to reinvent himself. In another film this material could have been tremendously dark, but here it is almost heart-warming. Mumford genuinely cares for his patients and he is sincerely pleased when he is able to help someone.

Really, what it seems Mumford wants is the same thing he helps to provide for others: a chance to open up, and a chance to really be himself. And so as he seeks to help Skip–a guy who hires Mumford to act like a friend–we see Mumford enjoy and even seek out that friendship. And as he attempts to help Sofia by helping her to get out of the house and to start interacting normally, Mumford begins to fall in love.

The movie has an impressive and extensive cast of recognizable faces. In addition to the people listed above, it includes Ted Danson, Elizabeth Moss, Kevin Tighe, Dana Ivey, Jason Ritter, Priscilla Barnes and Robert Stack as himself. Stack’s appearance here is particularly clever, as a version of his regular gig as the host of Unsolved Mysteries is used to significantly further the plot.

But obviously, it’s Loren Dean who is at the center of the film. He creates a highly likable presence, but a somewhat inscrutable and emotionally-removed one, which of course fits the story. But still he allows the right levels of sincerity to come through with both his patients and non-patients. His scenes with Hope Davis as Sofia are particularly sweet, and their love story one we easily become invested in.

My biggest disappointment with Mumford is just how much sexualized content it includes, largely limited to the fantasies of one of Mumford’s patients and the flashbacks of Mumford’s own backstory (and also with Skip’s new entrepreneurial “venture”). I can see that there might have been the desire to include these more sensationalized sequences because the majority of the film is so understated, but they end up jarring with the rest of the movie.

A couple of final notes–according to the Unsolved Mysteries segment, Mumford’s real name is Michael Diehl. That’s amusing to me, because Michael Diehl is actually the name of a guy I know. Also, this is the second film in this current series that is from the 90’s which features an appearance by Robert Stack (the other being Joe Versus the Volcano).

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Overall I enjoyed the movie, and found my appreciation growing as I reflected upon the film later. However, it’s “mature” content means that I probably won’t be revisiting it.

See here for the Master List.

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