Thursday, 20 May 2021

Streaming - John Baxter unearths a little known film by Lawrence Kasdan MUMFORD (USA, 1999)

Loren Dean, Hope Davis,  Mumford


             “Lives of great men,” wrote Longfellow,  “all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time.” Noble sentiments. What, however, of the not-so-great? Surely we have just as much to learn, if not more, from history’s screw-ups. 

            A similar thought resides in the mind of screenwriter/director Lawrence Kasdan, whose protagonists harbour the best intentions but signally fail to realise them.  

            Most people know Kasdan for his part in creating Indiana Jones and the characters ofStar Wars.  (George Lucas guaranteed his directorial debut, Body Heat, but declined screen credit, explaining it might alienate impressionable young followers of The Force.)  William Hurt’s pussy-whipped attorneyoutsmarted by a toxically seductive Kathleen Turner (“You aren’t too smart, are you? I like that in a man“) was his first virtuoso creation, though it would be Kevin Kline who, in The Big Chill, Silverado and Grand Canyon. explored the role of the fumbling homme moyen sensual whose footprints on the sands of time suggest his shoes are on the wrong feet.

            Unlike Body Heat, the last three films are ensemble pieces. They don’t feel American. In the Chekhovian The Big Chill, ageing college friends gatherto bury one of their number and revive old enmities and amities. Grand Canyon and Silverado are parables. Strangers meet by chance and travel together towards a demonstration of their shared humanity. 

            Mumford (1999) resembles none of these. The story of psychologist Michael Mumford, who hangs out his shingle in a small town, also called Mumford, and offers radical solutions to the problems of his patients, has something of the romcom, but any romance is unconventional and the comedy seldom raises more than a rueful smile. 

            Loren Dean leads an interesting B-list cast that includes Hope Davis, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard and, in her film debut, Zooey Deschanel. Ted Danson and Martin Short add discordant notes but make too little impression to be considered villains, just as the undemonstrative Dean is nobody’s idea of a hero. 

            Kasdan likes to confound our expectations, just as Mumford confounds those of his neighbours. When they wonder why his name is the same as that of the town, or question his readiness to discuss the problems of his patients, he appears no less puzzled than they. “Guess we’ll have to give that some serious thought,” he muses.  

            He just as effectively stone-walls the town’s other psychologists (David Paymer and Jane Adams), blandly justifying his methods (“I was chief therapist in a shopping mall once. Had a little shop, next to the yogurt place”) and assuring them it’s just coincidence that the only people who might confirm his bona fides have met violent ends (“I don’t know why hang-gliding is even considered a legitimate sport.”) We assume the film will build to a climax with these questions resolved, but halfway through he volunteers that he’s a fraud. In time, further revelations come out of the blue, through the medium of a Cold Case-type TV show.

David Paymer, Jane Adams

             Having  a liar as protagonist puts us at a disadvantage. How seriously should we take Mumford?  Do his treatments work? Are his patients even ill? At most they appear, like Ned Racine in Body Heat, to be just “lazy, ugly or horny” - in the case of the local pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) all three. After stoking this man’s pornographic fantasies to white heat, Mumford turns him loose on Mary McDonnell’s frustrated but eager upper-class matron, and, for good measure, matches the anhedonic Zooey Deschanel with her son. 

" anhedonic Zooey Deschanel"

            Most of the town works for Bill Gates-clone Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee) who shyly confesses that, to deal with chronic loneliness, he’s developing a Virtually Life-like Humanoid Gender-Specific Sexual Surrogate/Companion, or super sex doll.  After an eye-popping visit to his laboratory, Michael aborts this ingenious project by introducing Skip to Alfre Woodard’s restaurateur, whose idea of high tech begins and ends with a long hot shower. 

Alfre Woodard, Jason Lee

            Michael himself finds a soul-mate in a near-terminally weary Hope Davis, whose malaise de temps he cures by taking her on long walks, during which they bond. His facility is unerring.  Even in the final scene, as he’s borne away to atone for his deceptions, the driver, sensing a sympathetic ear, pours out his woes. In each case Tab A clicks into Slot B, glib as Lego. 

            Kasdan must expect us to spot the pattern. So what is the lesson he wishes us to take away with us?  Is it Auden’s “We must love one another or die”?  Or Forster’s “Only connect”?  If he means to illustrate that “psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love,” Freud probably didn’t mean “love” quite that literally. Mumford gives new significance to the term “bedside manner” and impresses us less as a therapist than dating advisor, match-maker and pimp.

A good copy of Mumford (albeit with Spanish subtitles) is streamed on this site if you click here

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