I’ve had my eye on Loren Dean since I first noticed him in GATTACA. Yeah, he’s cute, and I’m a sucker for that, but even more to my liking, he’s smart. He’s one of those actors who seems to fly under the radar, his talent sort of sneaking up on the viewer. His delivery is assured without being arrogant, intelligent without being showy. That’s what made him so mesmerizing in GATTACA: halfway through the movie, the unsettling, something-not-quite-right-here feeling that has been building between Dean’s character, a homicide detective, and his partner, played by Alan Arkin, suddenly makes sense when we discover that Dean’s younger cop is the one in charge, not Arkin’s older cop, as we’d been assuming. Arkin has been deferring to Dean’s low-key dominance all along.
Dean turned up again in small parts in Enemy of the State and The End of Violence, but he didn’t have much to do in either of them. At last, though, he’s snagged a leading role, and his gently deadpan attitude serves him well in Mumford. In fact, it’s what makes the film work as well as it does.
Dr. Mumford (Dean) is the new therapist in a small California town called — coincidentally? — Mumford. He’s so good at helping the good folk of Mumford work through their problems that the town’s two other therapists (David Paymer: Payback, Mighty Joe Young; and Jane Adams) are losing business. Dr. Mumford is straightforward and “shockingly honest”; he editorializes on his patients’ sad tales and even breaks patient confidentiality when it suits his purposes.
His patients are a motley bunch with mostly normal neurosis: pharmacist Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince) enjoys vivid sexual fantasies but sadly can’t even imagine himself in them; lonely wife-and-mom Althea Brockett (Mary McDonnell: Dances with Wolves) is a compulsive catalog shopper; insecure teen Nessa Watkins (Zooey Deschanel) has body image problems. Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan offers us a touch Northern Exposure-type wackiness amongst the townfolk. The town’s skateboarding billionaire — Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee: Chasing Amy), founder of Panda Modem, which employs most of the town — hires Mumford but asks him to pretend to be his friend, lest anyone suspect he needs a shrink. (Skip is working through his loneliness with a new invention that is certain to make him even more disgustingly wealthy than he already is.) Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis: Arlington Road, The Imposters) suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome; Mumford falls in love with her the moment he lays eyes on her, despite the fact that she looks like death warmed over, and prescribes treatment in the form of walking a newspaper delivery route with him.
And that’s pretty much it. No big conflicts, no shouting or screaming. Kasdan has crafted an amiable comedy/drama whose meandering story dips in and out of the lives of its ensemble of characters. Mumford — and Dean — hold it all together. Kasdan uses Mumford — who says things like “I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. That’s never been my strong suit” — to show us that, almost paradoxically, we all have secret lives and simultaneously are who we say we are. When Mumford reveals to Skip his own big secret — that he isn’t actually a psychologist — we wonder whether he’s telling Skip, and us, the truth or just telling Skip something he needs to hear. Indeed, the dramatization of Mumford’s tale of how he came to be a shrink has the same kind of filmic fakeness as Henry’s fevered fantasies, to which we were privy earlier. (My sole complaint about the film has to do with the resolution of Mumford’s revelation, which takes the expected “surprise” route instead of the unexpected one I hoped it would.)
Dean is not the only delight in the cast — the entire ensemble is immensely likable, from She Who Can Do No Wrong Alfre Woodard as Mumford’s friend and neighbor Lily; to Jason Lee, whom I would not have believed could ever be described as “adorable” prior to this movie; to Ted Danson, oozing slime as a sleazy investment banker; and everyone else.
This is a wonderful little film. Don’t miss it.