"Mumford" is a weightless comedy with old-fashioned appeal, the kind of innocuous, affable picture in which happiness is just a musical montage sequence away.
Fifty years ago, it might have been a Jimmy Stewart movie, with a few subject matter alterations. Twenty-five years ago, Dustin Hoffman could have been the lead. In 1999 though, the title role goes to Loren Dean ("Gattaca"), who plays a warmhearted con man winging it as a psychologist in a small mountain town, where his unconventional therapy methods turn around the distressed lives for a smattering of eccentric residents.
Handsome, open and amiable, he's been in town only four months and already he's everyone's friend. He's just the kind of guy strangers tell their problems to, which is why he decided to give it a go in the head shrinking game.
His patients include a pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince, "Heavy") overwhelmed by pulp fiction sex fantasies, a high-strung, skateboarding, billionaire modem magnate (Jason Lee, "Chasing Amy") freaked out about never finding true love now that models and gold-diggers throw themselves at him; a misanthropic high school girl (newcomer Zooey Deschanel) with corrosive body-image issues; a disaffected housewife (Mary McDonnell, "Independence Day") who's become a compulsive catalog shopper; and Sophie (Hope Davis, "Next Stop, Wonderland"), a divorcee with chronic fatigue syndrome in which our hero takes a special interest that leads to the kind of ethical dilemma he probably should have had before faking his credentials.
Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan ("Body Heat," "The Big Chill," "Silverado") with an ear for meaningful but unpretentious dialogue, "Mumford" is something of an ensemble piece, yet everything hangs on Dean's subtle, scheming performance as the mock doctor, who -- he confesses to one patient -- is trying to make up for a past as an ruthless IRS investigator and misfit cocaine addict.
"I understand what it's like to want to leave a problem behind," he says, putting the audience firmly in his corner even as he manipulates his patients in ways the state board probably would not approve.
Hopeful, harmless and obliging, the one real problem with "Mumford" is that after a few successful therapy sessions, Kasdan's script solves all the patients' problems just by pairing them off romantically. The aforementioned musical montage of hand-holding and smitten grins comes just before the inevitable you-know-what hits the fan and the Doc Mumford is exposed as a fraud -- which might ruin the snug niche he's cut out for himself but frees him up to openly romance Sophie, if she doesn't reject him out of hand.
The silly twist of fate that brings all this about doesn't stand up to the rest of the picture's crafty scripting, and last act is a rushed string of slapdash solutions, but it doesn't cripple the movie's high smile factor, which comes largely from its cast's delightful, endearing performances that have you rooting for everyone to wind up happy.