“Therapy,” a friend of mine likes to say, “is for people who have no friends.” Whether or not this is true, the forlorn people in the blandly pleasant Mumford seem to have nobody in their lives who will listen to them. There is a divorced pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) so insecure about his looks that he won’t let himself be in his own sexual fantasies. There is an unhappy married woman (Mary McDonnell) who compulsively orders expensive bric-a-brac from catalogs. There is a baby-billionaire computer nerd (Jason Lee) whose success has ruined his chances at normal friendship or romance. There is a self-hating teenage girl (Zooey Deschanel) who obsesses about the differences between magazine supermodels and her own body. Most important to what calls itself a plot, there is a depressed woman (Hope Davis) who barely has the energy to leave the house. They all gravitate to Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), the new psychologist in town. The name of that town, as it happens, is also Mumford.
Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (who cutely references himself — there’s a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the pharmacist’s hard-boiled fantasies echo Kasdan’s debut Body Heat), Mumford wants to be a small-town comedy for the Prozac-nation ’90s. Even in this town, which seems idyllic enough, people are disconnected and lonely. Everyone knows each other, but apparently nobody listens to each other. And isn’t therapy really about paying someone to listen to you? People love Dr. Mumford; he sits there like a regular guy and eases them through their neuroses and blocks, never overbearing, never judgmental. Yet he also knows when to shock them out of their malaise when they need it. He’s a genius of therapy, and of course this Freud turns out to be a fraud.
Kasdan appears to be saying that it doesn’t matter. Dr. Mumford has positioned himself as just the figure his patients need: friendly enough, yet distant enough, so that they feel comfortable telling him everything. For reasons of his own, he has come to this town on a healing mission, and he knows the only way he can do any good is by posing as a shrink. In effect, he sets himself up as an official friend to the friendless. That’s nice, but these new friends also pay him for the privilege, and Kasdan opens up an ethical can of worms he doesn’t know how to close. Mumford almost feels as if Kasdan had begun with a simple story of a genuine psychologist, and then realized he needed a hook, an angle, a synthetic crisis to keep our interest. What Kasdan didn’t realize is that there’s very little interest in this story either way.
As has been pointed out elsewhere (because it’s true), the movie feels like a 112-minute pilot for a quirky comedy-drama series in the David E. Kelley mold: Every week, Mumford helps two or three new patients deal with their mildly wacky (but never too dark or disturbing) mental problems — this fall on CBS! (If one of Dr. Mumford’s patients were suicidal, homicidal, or just flat-out unreachable, the movie would collapse.) Kasdan may be saying that the movie’s patients never really needed Dr. Mumford — they just needed a sounding board, a friendly ear, a nudge in the right direction. By extension, Kasdan may be saying that this is what all therapy amounts to, and viewers who’ve had experience with serious mental illness may find this bitterly amusing at best and ridiculous at worst. Significantly, we never see Mumford prescribing medication for anyone. All you need is a friend to talk to. The movie, to put it very mildly, is best not taken too literally.
The cast is game, and Loren Dean is a likable deadpan presence as the mysterious Mumford, but they’re stuck in a plot that takes a turn towards matchmaking: Just about everyone in the movie gets paired up with someone, and Mumford himself falls hard for Hope Davis’ fatigued city woman. (Yes, this is what all overworked urban women need: to move back home with their parents and meet a nice man. Movies and television have told us this so often lately that I’m surprised there are any single women left in American cities.) Mumford reminded me a lot of The Butcher’s Wife, a deservedly forgotten 1991 romantic comedy in which Demi Moore wandered into a New York neighborhood and fixed everyone up with someone.
Of course, everything leads to a courtroom scene in which Mumford must account for his facade, with his patients there to support him; Kasdan steps on this scene and mutes it to take the weariness out of it, but he does that through the whole film, so everything is slightly noncommittal and blurry. The patients keep having subtle, small breakthroughs within a plot structure that demands big “Aha!” moments. Afraid to take bold steps that might feel melodramatic and cheesy, Kasdan more or less just stands still. Mumford may look okay on your television some dead afternoon, but it isn’t a movie.