Rated R - Running Time: 1:36 - Released 9/24/99

Remember that episode of M*A*S*H, where the new surgeon comes to the camp and he's really good, but then it turns out he's not really a surgeon? This is the premise of Lawrence Kasdan's Mumford. Kasdan, director of The Big Chill and writer of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi, has reason to be proud of this quiet little film about a small town psychologist who, after treating (and clearly helping) many of the troubled townsfolk, is forced to admit he never really went to medical school. I would not exactly classify Mumford as a comedy (although it has plenty of hilarious moments); it's more of a behavior study. Its humor is not written into the script, but derives from the subtle personality quirks of its characters, brought out expertly by its talented cast and director. Not since Cookie's Fortune have I seen such a well-developed community of characters blended into a cohesive whole.

It's no accident Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean, Apollo 13) has the same name as the town he lives in; you see, he moved to Mumford because the town bore his name. "I thought it was a sign," he says. It's not until much later that we learn that Mumford is not really his name, and, in fact, nothing about him is as it appears.

After a while, Dr. Mumford has treated many people and gotten to know the community quite well. Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee, Chasing Amy), the young billionaire who owns a successful modem manfacturing company, seeks Dr. Mumford's services as a companion more than as a therapist — it seems, since most of the townspeople work for him, Skip has trouble forming meaningful relationships. Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince) has such a low self-esteem that he's not even in his own romantic fantasies. Althea Brockett (Mary McDonnell, Dances With Wolves) seems to revel in her emotional dysfunction by filling her home with mail-order merchandise. And Nessa Watkins (Zooey Deschanel, fabulous in her debut film performance) is a teenager obsessed with fashion models and weight loss, even though she's already built like a stick.

But the doctor's most intriguing patient is Sophie Crisp (Hope Davis, Arlington Road), a young woman who has suffered a sudden attack of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and is so tired and depressed she is hardly able to get out of bed in the morning. The doctor begins her treatment by taking walks around the town with her and talking. Soon she begins to show real improvement, and their relationship as doctor and patient begins to grow into something more personal, and less ethical.

Lawrence Kasdan's script for this film is intriguing, although the ending is a bit too tidy. As director, Kasdan expertly creates the feeling of community not only with the wide variety of characters (I haven't mentioned half of them), but by returning geographically again and again to the same locations, including an overlook that clearly suggests the small size of the town. Dean is perfect for this role; his deadpan style is comic and at the same time believable, but the flashback scenes (where he tells his life story to Skip) reveal the depth of his character. There is not a bad actor in this film, and its short running length is sprinkled with wonderful, subtle moments of quirky behavior and personal depth. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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