The Big Shrink

SINCE WRITER-DIRECTOR Lawrence Kasdan has just made what he calls a "very personal" movie about a psychologist, I won't resist the urge to put him and his film on the couch. Kasdan's Mumford follows a bland small-town shrink (Loren Dean) who lives vicariously through other people's dramas--the basic m.o. of any movie director, you might say, and not least that of Kasdan, whose 20-year history of genre-film pastiches (e.g., Body Heat, Silverado, Wyatt Earp) bespeaks a big-screen practitioner of regression therapy. As early as 1981, the auteur alluded to his own escapist tendencies, telling the New York Times that "if your work is going to draw from life, you'd better work very hard to keep up with reality." No wonder Kasdan pushed himself to follow his comic-book screenplay for Return of the Jedi with The Big Chill (1983), the sobering tale of well-off Michigan grads who pretend to mourn the death of their hippie-holdout pal while relievedly eulogizing the Sixties.

So is Kasdan's new film a sort of psycho-autobiography? Well, let's just say that, as the man has made a profession out of alternately recovering and repressing his inner child (he followed Silverado with the adult Accidental Tourist, and the adult Grand Canyon with Wyatt Earp), Mumford is the story of a guy who's leading a double life. The clean-cut title character spends the film's sunny first half quietly counseling the likes of a flaky teenager (Zooey Deschanel), a suburban shopaholic (Mary McDonnell), and a sunken-eyed Epstein-Barr patient (Hope Davis)--and its second half nervously awaiting the public revelation that he has no training and no license. Seems the good "doctor" has been impersonating a shrink in order to avoid responsibility for his college days of "degenerate, self-destructive behavior" (i.e., sex and drug use, rendered indie-style by Kasdan in grainy flashbacks). Thus Mumford reads as a conservative man's fear of being exposed--not just as a professional impostor, but, God forbid, as a former hippie.

Coincidence or not, the baby-boomer Kasdan got his master's in education from the University of Michigan in 1970 before going into advertising--much like Kevin Kline's campus radical-turned-yuppie entrepreneur in The Big Chill. There are also obvious traces of the filmmaker in his Grand Canyon character Davis (Steve Martin), a Hollywood producer who laments that chaos is "the central element in everyone's life" while making his name on reactionary action pictures (Kasdan wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark). And Mumford's Henry (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is a portly pharmacist whose noirish sexual fantasies ("She kept yammerin' the whole time--but her hips were doing all the talkin'") recall Kasdan's licentiousness in Body Heat. "They are all struggling, in one way or another," Kasdan recently said of his Mumford characters, "with what I think is a common problem--reconciling the person that we feel we're supposed to be, with the person inside who has all kinds of drives and desires and weaknesses."

Recovering hippie: Director Lawrence Kasdan on the set of Mumford
Recovering hippie: Director Lawrence Kasdan on the set of Mumford

Mr. Kasdan, I'm afraid your time is up.

 

Mumford starts Friday at area theaters.

 
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