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November 13, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Underappreciated Gems | November 13, 2008 |

Strangely enough, a couple of years ago, it was Mumford that provoked the idea for our list of the Ten Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, which would later inspire this Underappreciated Gems series. Ultimately, Mumford didn’t make that initial list because, as much as I love it, I couldn’t justify its inclusion there, though it did, however, jog Zero Effect — directed by Jake Kasdan, the son of Mumford’s director — in my memory, which did make the list. Mumford, however, is only a great movie for a certain brand of folk, people who not only love romantic comedies, but who would like Mike Leigh a lot more if his films were less meandering and more studio friendly. Mumford, in my mind, is a Mike Leigh stripped of its artistic merit and pushed through the rom-com formula machine, made palatable for a slightly broader audience.

That doesn’t make it any less endearing. In fact, I finally decided to write this one up when I saw it on HBO earlier this week, because it’s always on HBO. The movie is ten years old, never made any money at the box-office, didn’t do much on DVD, and never gained any sort of cult-following, but hell if Mumford doesn’t air every other day on HBO. Surely, the internal numbers at the pay network suggest that there are enough people watching it to justify its heavy rotation. It’s probably because Mumford is a nice comfortable movie that sucks you in immediately, or else it’s because a lot of viewers stick around to find out why so many recognizable faces are in a movie that so few people have seen: Jason Lee, Zooey Deschanel (in her first movie role), Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell, Martin Short, Ted Danson, and Elizabeth Moss. Strangely enough, it also features the last role Priscilla Barnes had in a movie anyone saw — Barnes, you’ll recall, was Chrissy’s replacement on “Three’s Company,” and you’ll do 17 double-takes before you figure out who it is.

Mumford is about a small-town shrink (Loren Dean, or Joe of Say Anything’s “Joe Lies” fame) who just happens to share the same last name as the town he moved to, Mumford. He’s got a fairly non-traditional approach to therapy: He back-talks his patients, he asks them to stop sharing so much, he makes house calls, and he spills his patients’ secrets to other patients. It becomes fairly evident early on that his non-tradition approach has a lot to do with the fact that he’s not actually a psychologist. In fact, he’s a former IRS investigator who just decided, after his drug addiction hit rock bottom, to fabricate a name and some credentials and move to a town and start a new life. He decided to go into therapy because he realized, when he was baked to the gills, that people loved to talk to him because he was such a good listener, what with being catatonic and all.

Anyway, Mumford is a lot like Mayberry, and Dr. Mumford is what you’d expect if Andy Taylor were a psychologist — he’s able to give common-sense advice because he’s not limited by all that troublesome medical knowledge. Hell, he’s even able to set up his patients with other patients or even dispense porn. Those patients include a socially awkward billionaire (Jason Lee) who basically pays him to be his friend; a gothy high school girl with self-image problems (Deschanel); a man with so little self-esteem that he can’t even inject himself into his own sexual fantasies; and a hypochondriac (Hope Davis) who diagnoses herself with chronic fatigue syndrome to avoid dealing with the world.

The rub in all of this is 1) two other shrinks are suspicious of Mumford’s credentials, and 2) he’s in love with Ms. Chronic Fatigue, which is not exactly something that goes over well with medical boards. But one of the things I like best about Mumford from a casual viewing standpoint (which is the only way Mumford should be viewed) is that the crisis points never really come to a head. They are quickly dispensed with in a preposterous plot turn that involved an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries,” which allows writer/director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon) to resolve the movie quickly and happily without it getting messy. A lot of critics and viewers would probably argue that, as a result, Mumford is a flat, lethargic movie free from dramatic turns. But that’s perhaps what makes Mumford so appealing to me — you don’t have to suffer through 20 minutes of contrivances manufactured to create some fake dramatic tension just to make the big-kiss payoff “rewarding.” Mumford is tension free, and it takes you contentedly to a conclusion that’s never in doubt. It’s like watching any one of the 31 other NFL teams play the Detroit Lions — the result is inevitable, so you can just sit back and enjoy the proceedings, comfortable in the knowledge that your team is going to win. Unless, of course, your team is the Detroit Lions, in which case: You poor bastard.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Maine. He’s wondering if anyone at all understood the headline reference. You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.

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Underappreciated Gems | November 13, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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