JUST AS you're beginning to shake your head over "Mumford," wondering what the thing is all about, it picks up. After this fumble-recovery beginning, the movie takes a charming, jaunty run all the way downfield.

That's Lawrence Kasdan for you. The writer-director of "Body Heat," "The Big Chill," "Silverado" and "Grand Canyon" is always interesting, because he loves to tackle only the most compelling characters.

"Mumford" proves that. A sort of thinking-person's cornball movie, it maintains a beguiling air of mystery around its central character, a man called Mumford (Loren Dean) who has just set up shop in the small town -- also called Mumford. A soft-spoken, genial man dressed in a conservative suit and haircut, Mumford has an instant rapport with the folks who come to air their blighted souls.

What is it about him? He seems to have that je ne sais couch that makes everyone want to sit down, confess and confess more. The strange thing is, Mumford tells them things you wouldn't normally expect from a psychologist -- like the secrets of his other patients. Is this unethical? Is he evil? Or is he just so darn normal and open, he can't help himself?

Whatever the answer -- and we get that in strategic increments throughout the movie -- Mumford continues to amaze and impress the tough, the weird and the wonderful. They all love him because he listens well and he has a great effect on their lives. Or do they just think he does? Cynical, unapproachable Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis) becomes -- well -- approachable.

Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee), a skateboarding tech genius whose invention of the Panda Modem has made him a billionaire, is so taken with Mumford he hires him as a permanent friend.

Mumford also charms the psychic pants off terminal shopping nut Althea (Mary McDonnell), chemist-confessor (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and an extremely been-there-done-that young girl named Nessa (Zooey Deschanel).

Beyond his one-on-one endearments, Mumford seems to be engendering a new spirit. This small town starts pairing up like Noah's Ark. Even Mumford's quirky, cafe-owner friend, Lily (Alfre Woodard), appears to be benefiting from the Mumford effect.

But Mumford also meets opposition from oily Lionel (Martin Short), an attorney who doesn't like the way Mumford cuts off his rambling monologues on the couch. Lionel persuades a local psychiatrist (David Paymer) and psychologist (Jane Adams) to check his background, and the trouble -- or the fun -- begins.

What's most enjoyable about this movie are the encounters. And Loren Dean, who grows on you as he gets going, is almost always one-half of that enjoyment.

Jason Lee, an extremely funny performer, is hilarious as the unkempt Skip, who struggles by the minute with this whole I-guess-I-should-be-grown-up thing. Woodard is a delicate joy as Mumford's friend Lily. And McDonnell comes up with some lovely moments in what could have been a unidimensional role.

But for my money, the great performance comes from Davis who -- not surprisingly -- takes an increasing amount of Mumford's attention. She has a remarkable, surprising range of emotions in that "instrument" of hers. And she has a face that is an interesting click shy of beautiful; she never quite looks the same from shot to shot, but she's perpetually watchable. Which makes us interested in two main characters and the dawning possibility that their mutual attraction might raise some professionally ethical questions.

MUMFORD (R, 111 minutes) -- Contains strong language and sexual situations. Area theaters.