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No one told Lawrence Kasdan at the time he was making his most well-received middlebrow thinkies that he was predictable and out of touch, and that’s just as well. Because while times have changed and Kasdan’s budget seems to have shrunk, his workmanlike focus on people’s need for love and connection has stayed the same, giving Mumford, a very small and humble film, an arch, ephemeral air of something terribly old-fashioned but more charming than its modern variants.
Loren Dean plays Mumford, the most popular psychologist in the small town of the same name. He isn’t much of a shrink, more a good listener who knows how to juggle detachment and engagement to jolt patients out of their self-imposed funks. He drops broad hints in his courtly, musing tone that he is not all he seems, but the couch cases who visit him—the pharmacist with the vivid fantasy life of hard-boiled detective paperbacks, the brazen high school beauty with image issues, the suspiciously cheery wealthy housewife with a secret shopping addiction—couldn’t care less. Dr. Mumford is obviously not one of them; he babbles chortlingly about his patients’ neuroses to one another, but his very alien presence is why they keep coming back.
Mumford’s most effective trick is to pair up his patients, and it’s this leisurely creation of perfect couples that occupies most of the film. The town is eerily sunny, the roses almost fluorescent and the gingerbread porches monstrously white, but there is no festering underbelly to this glittering small town. Whatever meanness, misery, and vanity there is resides in the citizens’ heads, and simple Mumford—who has walked through all the decadence and big-city shame these people have not—orchestrates their futures by offering them love.
Meanwhile, the town’s other two shrinks (David Paymer and Jane Adams) and a rapacious lawyer (Martin Short) debate looking into Mumford’s past. As the possibility of exposure closes in, the good doctor finds himself with two dilemmas: his own growing feelings for Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis, in one of her subtlest pretty-plain roles), a woman afflicted with debilitating listlessness, and what space to fill in the otherwise sated soul of Skip Skipperton (Chasing Amy’s Jason Lee in a marvelous, touching comic turn), a local software mogul and 20-something billionaire who could have whatever he wanted if only he knew what it was. Might it be a life of baseball stats and long, hot showers with Lily (Alfre Woodard), the lovely, single owner of the town diner?
Weird and slow, Mumford doesn’t look or feel like any other movie—which isn’t a judgment, exactly, just an observation. It’s coolly innocent for a film with so many boobs and f-words, and gets across its dated message—you have the power within you, Little Grasshopper—with much more gentle delight than Albert Brooks’ tedious, misogynistic The Muse. Kasdan had no reason to show his hero as being morally stronger than the other town shrinks. But otherwise, there’s nothing really wrong with the film, except that it never claims a reason to exist.
Jake Scott’s Plunkett and Macleane is a preening rock video of a period film, gaudy, smug, anachronistic, and thoroughly ridiculous from its first scene to its last. Which isn’t to say it’s bad; anything this self-consciously on-the-runway is going to be all about style, and style gives the skeptical folks in the audience something to observe even while their brains are being turned into cottage cheese. But as a cheapish latest product of the British New Audacious scene, it’s irritating in the way of other clever-boots outlaw flicks like I Went Down, Shooting Fish, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels: Films like this entertain the living daylights out of you so loutishly and relentlessly that you wonder just how numb and moronic its makers assume you to be. It blares hip music, trots out the hoariest stereotypes in the assurance that context will render them ironic, and never walks when it can vogue.
The lads—they’re always lads—at the center of this tale of dashing varletry, a de-spectacularized fictionalization of the great London highwaymen Wild and Sheppard, are Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), a former pharmacist who turned to thieving after the early death of his wife, and “Captain” James Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller), a gentleman cast out of society for his debauched ways. After meeting cute in prison over a ruby magnificent enough to undergo various indignities to prevent its discovery, the two link up for a glamorous crime spree, figuring that Macleane’s social know-how will get them into lofty, jewelry-wearing circles, while Plunkett’s criminal expertise will pry the goods off the toffs.
Up to this point, the film has been a riot of grimy velvet coats and moonlit rainy nights, maggot-ridden corpses and eye-gouging bullies. The second part replaces the filth in which the camera’s eye wallows with textures of luxury, although the wallowing is no less extravagant. (And much of it is missed, anyway, because the camera is always doing some private gavotte so quick and elaborate you really can’t see anything; you only get the impression of things—which may be deliberate.) Turns out Plunkett’s hiding a bag of gold—a magic bag of gold that never runs out?—in his crummy digs, so the two take rooms in the Athena, whatever that is, and suit up the luscious Captain in the style to which many aristocratic ladies will quickly become accustomed. If it was this easy to buy the accouterments of gentility, why didn’t Plunkett do so earlier?
Oh, yeah, because then he wouldn’t have gotten to say “Oi!’ and be the lout, which is a necessary element of New Lad Cinema. The circles the highwaymen infiltrate include the usual assortment of sniggering fops (Alan Cumming, who, wonderful as he is, must move on), pox-infested court nymphomaniacs, sadistic lawmen, corrupt politicians bent on vengeance, and a beautiful young lady (Liv Tyler as Rebecca Gibson), who may or may not see right through Macleane’s richly embroidered disguise. The pair case fine parties and balls, then jack their former dinner companions on the way home, always polite and well-dressed and so dashing as to make the susceptible court ladies giddy. Even Miss Rebecca plasters her bedroom wall with news accounts of the “Gentlemen Highwaymen,” evidently the 1748 equivalent of pop stars.
London’s swooning excitement over the rash of suave robberies is one of the historical facts kept intact from the Wild-Sheppard accounts, and one scene in the film is taken right from the tabloids of 250 years ago—a lady who clearly hopes to get lucky with a bad boy offers the robbers a jeweled collar she’s clipped around her thigh. But more outlandish contemporary touches don’t bother director Scott; he employs thumping disco rather than the decorous period sawing we expect, even at a dance, where we can see the violinists but hear only a soundtrack for a rave. There’s a reference to one’s “John Thomas,” and the requisite fist-pumping “Yess!” as well as an insolent visual joke that allies this film with A Clockwork Orange. As if. The last third drops the dizzy queen act when things get dire for the dashing outlaws, but it’s all so frenetic, showy, and slapdash that this change of tone hardly matters. It may be more tolerable to someone less invested in it; after all, someone pointed out that I’m the only person who would hear of a film about highwaymen and expect it to be good. It’s certainly something—less like a movie than a glam dinner party at which you thoroughly enjoy yourself but later suspect that at some point you were gravely insulted. CP