Sunday, June 7, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)

Here's what I've covered so far:

The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)

Coming up:

Bowfinger (Frank Oz) – June 15th
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman) - June 22nd
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton) - June 29th
The Iron Giant (Brad Bird) - July 6th
October Sky (Joe Johnston) - July 13th
Election (Alexander Payne) - July 20th

God bless Lawrence Kasdan. His 1999 film Mumford belongs in another era of film. The term Capra-esque is thrown around way too often, but here it's so very appropriate. Kasdan's tongue can be found nowhere near his cheek, which is a relief since this was about the time where most comedies were becoming more and more cynical. Mumford is not a drama, it's not a character study, and it's not driven by a just exists in its own charming universe, a film filled with tons of nuanced laughs and scene after pleasurable scene that brings a smile to your face. In a year that brought us the film that created the onslaught of lowbrow comedies (American Pie) Kasdan created a wonderfully charming ensemble piece; a film that elicits some of the most genuine smiles. The movie just wants to be nice, gosh darn it! And you know what, that's okay with me. Kasdan's forgotten gem from 1999 is one of those movies that reminds the viewer of the ease Capra made his films with. There's nothing shocking in the film, and really, when the twist comes midway into the film it's not as if the astute viewer hasn't already picked up on it. Kasdan isn't trying to surprise us. The film is about a town that's quick to forgive and eager for the possibilities the next day brings. Like his town of Mumford, I think Kasdan is just happy to have this movie exist: it doesn't need to say anything profound, and it doesn't really want to. The film is a joy to sit through; breezy, heart warming, and not a pretentious bone in its body.

Similar to another brilliant 1999 forgotten gem, Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune, Mumford is an ensemble comedy existing in one of those small towns only conjured up by those who work in Hollywood. This is a town where you wouldn't mind living the rest of your life. It's the kind of town where the therapist knows everyone in town and they all call him "Doc". It's also a town where everyone seems to confide in the good doctor, who is aptly names Mumford. Loren Dean plays Mumford as a man who listens, but doesn't ask silly therapist questions. He talks in circles and is playful with his patients. However, there is a care there that is not in the least pretentious or driven by monetary reasons. Mumford is a good man with a good heart, he fits in well with the town.

Kasdan has an affinity for working with large ensembles. His Grand Canyon was one of the best films of the 90's, and The Big Chill was a favorite among many in the 80's (although I still have never seen it). Here he's working with a great cast: the aforementioned Dean, Martin Short, Hope Davis, Ted Danson, David Paymer, Jane Adams, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell, Jason Lee, and Zooey Deschanel. They all have some kind of problem, and they all see Mumford about it (even Paymer who plays another therapist in town).

The character that confides in Mumford the most is Skip Skipperton (that name proves that this movie belongs in another era of filmmaking) -- played wonderfully by a not-yet-so-annoying Jason Lee -- a dot-comer not unlike Bill Gates. He basically employs everyone in town, and he's lonely. He just wants someone to throw a baseball around with; someone where it won't feel like an order. A friendship develops and Mumford ends up confiding in Skip one day as the two hike. If you haven't seen the film I won't reveal the secret, but the results of the revelation fit perfectly with how a town like Mumford would react to such news. It's even fitting that when Mumford has to go to court at the end of the movie, the lawyer who represents him (Martin Short) is the same person who was trying to get him out of town earlier in the movie.

There isn't much to talk about in terms of plot when you're talking about a movie like Mumford. Like I said there aren't any real big dramatic conflicts or climaxes; there's just an aura of good feelings throughout that make you smile. When you have a large ensemble like this, the director usually just moves from one vignette to the next. Here, Kasdan does it seamless as we never notice the film's "slow" qualities, but rather we revel in them. Kasdan uses the backdrop of Mumford's office for most of the major plots, but he has fun taking his characters on walks through the streets and hikes up in the hills; just kind meandering as we wander, and wonder, through this town of Mumford.

The film is more of a mood than anything else. It's hard to do a proper review of this film, but there is something so antiquated in the charm found within every frame of this film. Is it a perfect film? Not by any means, but it's a film that you feel really good about spending your time with.

I've always liked Kasdan as a director. I love his early noir Body Heat and his westerns Wyatt Earp and the extremely fun Silverado, another great example of the man's mastery of the ensemble picture. Whenever I hear the man's name I always associate him with making lots of movies, but one glance at his resume and he has never been that busy of a director. Which is too bad, because I like the way he approaches the comedy with this film, and I've always liked the way he handles the ensemble picture, which when placed in the wrong hands is often too focused on happenstance to get the message across.

What I love about Mumford is that Kasdan's words and his direction elicits the allegories that come with these films that take place in a whimsical fairy tale town without going over-the-top with any particular "message" (his L.A. film Grand Canyon was subtle in delivering its message, too). I'm sure Kasdan was creating a town here in which he wished we could all live in at the turn on the then uncertain century, but he allows the viewer to get swept up in the whimsy of it all, the sweetness and the genuine charm that permeates the screen; instead of hitting the viewer of the head with his allegorical hammer. Mumford is an Eden, a perfect Utopia that we would all want to escape to, and Kasdan's restraint with the script, the wonderful ensemble acting, and the genuine way the characters forgive one another, and listen to one another is the perfect counter argument for what was to become the recent slew of gross-out comedies about to take multiplexes by storm.

Thank you Lawrence Kasdan. Sure Mumford is almost too sweet for its own good, but I relished in every unpretentious moment of it. It's truly one of the forgotten gems of 1999.


  1. I really like this film as well. It has a real humanity at its core that is missing from a lot of films today as your rightly point out. And there is something comforting about the gentle, laid-back vibe of Kasdan's films. I have quite enjoyed many of his directorial efforts and he had a great run as screenwriting penning the best films in both the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be making the kinds of films that the Hollywood studios want to bankroll (kinda like James L. Brooks too) and so I guess that has limited his output, which is a damn shame.

    Excellent review on of my fave films.

  2. J.D.:

    Thanks for the comments. I like your comparison to James L. Brooks -- another director who takes his time with his films, which are usually comedies not driven by plot devices. You're right about the fact that it seems like he's stopped making movies because no one in Hollywood will finance his style of film anymore. He tried to in 2003 to make a more commercial horror film with the dreadful Dreamcatcher, but he hasn't been heard from since. It's a shame, as you point out, because I love his laid back style of filmmaking.

    One look at his IMDB profile and it seems he's penning the 2010 release of Clash of the Titans, as well as working on a Big Chill remake (which most likely just has his name attached to the "story" credit.)

    His son Jake has talent, and will be a worthy successor should Lawrence never direct again.

    Thanks as always for stopping by.

  3. I liked Jake's first two films, ZERO EFFECT and ORANGE COUNTY but his one about TV left me cold.

    You're about the elder Kasdan, it looks like he's gone back to screenwriting duties. I heard he was even working on a live action version of ROBOTECH (?!). Dear lord.

  4. Oh no. Robotech??? I almost mentioned Kasdan's good films, but I figured you would know what I meant when I said he was a good filmmaker. And you read my mind. I love Orange County and I think Zero Effect is still an underappreciated masterpiece. However, you're right about his latest efforts: the failed Apatow music parody Dewey Cox and the kind of boring TV Set. It'll be interesting to see where he goes next.

  5. "Like his town of Mumford, I think Kasdan is just happy to have this movie exist: it doesn't need to say anything profound, and it doesn't really want to. The film is a joy to sit through; breezy, heart warming, and not a pretentious bone in its body."

    Indeed Kevin! Most perceptively stated, and a position I do agree with. I am not a big fan of GRAND CANYON, but THE BIG CHILL is a model of its kind from the 70's. However Kasden's greatest film ever is THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, which was one of 1988's best films and a surprise winner from the New York Film Critics Circle. Of course BODY HEAT is is a significant piece too. But Kasden has had his share of misses too; suffice to say he's at least a director who deserves a first shot.

    The film you lovingly review here, MUMFORD would be my second-favorite Kasden film. It most assuredly does recall Capra, and its an oddly-whimsical and winning confection that once seen will always be remembered. Fine performances, a winning script and irresistable, if derivative situation all conspire for an audience pleaser that is sweet rather than sacharine, and a pleasant escape to (as you rightly contend) to Utopia that Kasden envisions, while he exercises "restraint with the script." The ensemble cast as you note, are wonderful.

    The most important point though that you make is that MUMFORD is essentially a "mood" piece. As such it can't be held to task like some plot-heavy pieces, where construction is always under more damning scrutiny.

    MUMFORD is truly a breath of fresh air, and you have again written an infectious piece that puts you in the mood for a re-visit. A friend just visiting my home saw what I was reading (your review) and it started a discussion of the film. It's funny I remember this film as if it were yesterday.

  6. Sam:

    I feel stupid for omitting The Accidental Tourist when I was listing Kasdan's best films...naturally that fine film sits atop the list. Although, Body Heat does give it a run for its money in my book.

    Mumford is an interesting entity in that it's not driven by plot, and I as I stated in my review, it just seems to kind of exist; thus making it the "breath of fresh air" you talk about in your fine comment. You're also dead-on about how it really can't be held to task like other films because Mumford doesn't seek to be much of anything; it's sole purpose is to put a smile on our face, and it does that in spades.

    I'm more than thrilled that something I wrote caught the eye of your friend and sparked a brief discussion about the film.

    Thanks as always, Sam.

  7. I should see this as well. I love your 1999 retrospective, I'll have to catch some of these films that you call 'hidden gems'.

    Can't wait for your Election piece. That's my favorite Payne behind Citizen Ruth.

  8. Ryan:

    I hope you do see it. If you have Direct TV they show it quite a bit on some of their HD movie channels. I can't remember which premium cable channel shows it, HBO or Showtime, but they also play it every now and then. It's a great movie to come home to and decompress in front of.

    I'm glad you're liking these. As I've noted on the blog numerous times this was my "film school" where I was seeing everything that came out in 1999. Being only 17 at the time I thought some of these were better than they really are, so it's been fun coming back to them and re-evaluating my thoughts.

    I think people will see just how strong of a year (if they don't already know) 1999 was once I get to the top 10 films. Some amazing filmmakers -- ranging from old masters (Scorsese, Kubrick) to the new breed (PT Anderson, David Russell, Spike Jonze) -- were putting out films in 1999. It was quite the year.

    And yes, I'm with you on Election and Citizen Ruth. I don't if Election is all that forgotten, but I think when people think Alexander Payne now they definitely think about how much they hated About Schmidt and how much they loved Sideways; those are almost always the two films of his I hear people talk about. So hopefully my review can remind some of my friends how good Election is.

  9. Kevin,

    Don't have a lot to add besides agreeing that this movie is criminally underrated. A lot of it I believe has to do with the fact nothing in it is prolific and it is so even keel throughout, and people for some reason avoid films of that sort.

    Wonderful cast though, loaded with charming performances from top to bottom.

    Looking forward to your write ups on the Iron Giant and October Sky, two more very, very underrated movies, and underappreciated favorites of my own.

  10. David:

    Thanks for stopping by. You're right...this film is indeed quite underrated. And charming is about as apt a word one can use when describing the great cast.

    I'm glad you enjoy October Sky. I'll have a lot of fun writing about that one because it just misses a spot in my top 10 for 1999.

    Thanks again for the kind words.