Byline: Merle Ginsberg

Analyzing ‘Mumford’ in 30 Seconds

NEW YORK — “The things I’m interested in can’t be boiled down to 30 seconds,” Lawrence Kasdan is saying. He’s almost apologetic about it.
He’s calling from the road, out on the film festival circuit with the ninth feature he’s directed, “Mumford” (opening today), and starting to realize what a tough sell the film is. It’s a funny, insightful ensemble piece for adults about a thoughtful therapist who changes his patients’ lives — even though he’s faked his credentials — it can’t be boiled down to a one-line concept and it isn’t reminiscent of any other film. Call it an American version of a Mike Leigh movie.
“They’ve all been like this,” Kasdan sighs. “No one knew what to do with ‘The Big Chill.’ Frank Price at Columbia sat there stonefaced at the first screening. The marketing department had no clue what to do with it.”
Yet, it went on to become an Eighties classic, a movie in which a group of yuppies mostly sat around and talked about their problems.
In “Mumford,” the ensemble — including Mary McDonnell, Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Martin Short, Alfre Woodard and David Paymer — talk even more, each character revealing his or her innermost vulnerabilities to the receptive Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), while his behavior gets stranger and stranger.
“The whole thing started,” says Kasdan, “because people talk to me a lot — I guess I’m a good listener. No one asks anybody about themselves anymore — it’s depressing. But if you’re one of the few people who listens in an imaginative way, there’s nothing people won’t tell you. I thought, what if someone didn’t know any more psychology than I do? How much help could they be?”
The 50-year-old writer/director — who also wrote scripts for such commercial hits as “The Bodyguard,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and “Body Heat” (which he also directed) — swears he has never been in therapy. Looking at his films, it’s hard to believe.
“I know, I know,” he chuckles. “My friends can’t believe it. But I do what works for me. I talk to my sons and my wife. Some people talk to strangers, and that works for them. That’s what ‘Grand Canyon’ was about: You don’t know when you open up to someone how they will affect you.”
“Mumford” is so realistic and so character-driven — it’s hard to even describe what the plot is — that people who’ve seen it keep asking Kasdan how he managed to get it made.
“I’m interested in people,” he says. “That’s why I keep making movies that are so seemingly hard to sell. How weird people can be, how funny and sad and vulnerable and obnoxious. Lucky for me, Joe Roth at Disney trusts my taste. We kept to a relatively low budget. The way movies are marketed now boils down to the 30-second TV spot. The only thing that matters is how you hit them on TV. So when you pitch a movie, they have to see that 30-second spot. It’s the tail wagging the dog — and it creates a lack of courage in the inception of most movies.”
“Mumford’s” 30-second spot is totally upbeat and makes the complicated film look like a fluffy comedy — but every character in it winds up revealing deep pain.
“Some people call it a ‘dramedy,”‘ says Kasdan. “To me, every day is like that — tragic, then funny. You don’t know which way it’s going to turn. I’d like movies to be more real.”
To that end, he worked with actors and not movie stars, casting Loren Dean — a constantly employed actor, but one with whom audiences have no real identification — as Mumford.
“That was completely intentional,” says Kasdan. “I wanted the audience to have the same mysterious relationship to him as his patients have.”
Hope Davis appears as a young woman who might or might not have Epstein-Barr chronic fatigue syndrome. “Isn’t it amazing the way her face changes? I’m in love with Hope,” says Kasdan. “She’s my favorite actress: smart, funny and she can break your heart. You don’t know if she has chronic fatigue or not — and that’s how that disease works, too.”
Jason Lee, Ben Affleck’s wacky sidekick in “Chasing Amy,” plays a young Internet billionaire who can’t keep a girlfriend and grows obsessed with sex.
“I know a few people like that,” Kasdan notes. “They’re very successful, but completely unsophisticated. I’ve seen the guy who runs Amazon.com on TV and he can’t stop giggling — he acts so goofy. Jason played that perfectly.”
The least-known member of the cast is Zoe Dechanel, the daughter of Caleb Dechanel, a well-known cinematographer. As Mumford’s youngest patient, she’s got a big case of insecurity from reading too many fashion magazines.
“Everybody’s so cool in here,” she says, clinging to her magazine. “They don’t have to talk.”
She emulates all the trends, takes up chain smoking and is always miserable.
“I read a lot of girls for that part,” says Kasdan. “You don’t have to be a teenage girl to feel bad when inundated with images of perfection our culture puts up for you. Getting pummeled by pictures of perfect-looking actors and models can be terribly destructive, and that’s what I was trying to show. People tell me I take it too seriously. But I think it helps separate us from ourselves. That’s what the movie is really about.”
The movie is also about second chances, people getting a chance to reinvent themselves, and this is something to which Kasdan particularly relates. He had worked on one project for the last few years, only to have it fall apart. Then he sat down and wrote “Mumford,” and to his constant surprise, it got made without too much difficulty.
“I do think everyone deserves a second chance,” says Kasdan. “That’s what ‘The Accidental Tourist’ was about, too. But I’m in a more hopeful mood these days — at least, about people.”