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Kasdan Puts His Faith in Characters--Lots of Them : Movies * 'Mumford's' writer-director thinks moviegoers are being shortchanged in this era of special effects extravaganzas and quick-cut editing.

September 24, 1999|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TORONTO — Larry Kasdan orders a lamb sandwich, fries with vinegar and flat mineral water--very Hollywood in his specificity. But that appears to be the only thing Hollywood about him.

In fact, the director of "Body Heat," "The Big Chill," "Silverado," "The Accidental Tourist," "I Love You to Death," "Grand Canyon," "Wyatt Earp" and "French Kiss" (not to mention writing or co-writing "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi" and "The Bodyguard") has an even rarer quality. He actually listens to people, which is practically unprecedented in a business in which people wear self-absorption as a badge of honor.

"My whole life people have said that I was a good listener, and then they complain," Kasdan says. "After about the third or fourth question they'll say, 'What are you, a reporter?' But they don't stop. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut and they'll continue to tell you everything. I think everybody's looking to be heard."

It's not surprising, then, that Kasdan's new movie, "Mumford," which he wrote and directed--the Disney film opens today--is about a seemingly bland therapist who's a good listener with a lot more going on inside than you might think. Mumford (Loren Dean) sets up practice in a small town--also called Mumford--where he treats its citizens for a variety of disorders, which gives Kasdan a chance to take shots at some of his pet peeves: materialism, the media, psychiatry.

"That's why I wrote the movie," Kasdan says at a restaurant in Toronto, where his film was shown earlier this month during the film festival.

Kasdan, 50, is a teddy bear of a man with a trim gray beard and a pinched, nasal voice. He has a sneaky, dry sense of humor and a telegraphic way of expressing himself. He has a lot to say about all kinds of subjects, and that's reflected in his work.

Nothing is ever simple in a Kasdan film, a trait that's sometimes landed him in trouble (critics pasted him for his earnest exploration of societal discontent in "Grand Canyon"). In the case of "Mumford," he explores--often comically--the disparity between who people are and what they present themselves to be.

"It's hard to reconcile our private selves and our public selves," Kasdan says. "Everybody has a secret life, and they don't want people to see it because it embarrasses them. It's a big strain pretending to be somebody else, which we all do. And a lot of problems develop out of that strain."

In the film, Sophie (Hope Davis) is chronically fatigued. Skip (Jason Lee) has all the money in the world and no one to share it with. Althea (Mary McDonnell) is addicted to shopping. Henry (Pruitt Taylor Vince) has film noir sexual fantasies. Nessa (Zooey Deschanel) is anorexic. They come to Mumford's office, he listens, they get better.

Mumford's approach is casual, occasionally judgmental and free of psychiatric jargon. He even talks out of school about his other patients.

Asked if he thinks this is the right way to go therapeutically, Kasdan says: "The issue is whether the professionals are that much more useful than a layman would be. I don't know the answer. But I know that I'm skeptical about the long-term benefits of professional treatment. It's not like I've seen so many cases of people's lives being turned around because they were treated professionally.

"It's not that I don't think it can help, because I do, and I think for some people it's like working out--you have to do it for an hour a day three times a week. It makes you feel better for that time, and that may be enough. But I think we get our help where we can find it."

For Kasdans, Films Are Family Affair

Kasdan says he gets his help from his sons, both of whom are in the movies (Jake, his oldest boy, directed last year's "Zero Effect"), and from his wife, Meg. Kasdan's own Mumfordism extends not only to his family and friends but to his movies, which are often ensemble pieces.

McDonnell, who worked with him on "Grand Canyon," says that in most films, supporting players are there merely to support the leads, whereas in Kasdan's movies, each has a personal story.

"In the '30s, '40s, '50s, even the early '70s, movies were full of characters," Kasdan says. "When someone came on the screen, they had some interior life of their own, but in the past 20 years movies have been only about the hero, usually the male hero, and the girl he picked up on the road. And her part is underwritten."

Kasdan has a longtime cinema buff's contempt for what passes today for storytelling. Though he's careful to note that "all generalizations are false, including this one," he generalizes to say that many new filmmakers know only about commercials and music videos, meaning quick cuts.

Ironically, when he was coming up, he and his contemporaries--notably Steven Spielberg and George Lucas--were accused of knowing only about other movies. A lot of good films came out of that sensibility, in his estimation. But regardless of how filmmaking has changed, he thinks audiences haven't.

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