Dummy Movie Review
It's an offbeat concept that might fit in a chop-'em-up horror movie or a sad, pathetic character study -- yet writer/director Pritikin finds his own niche with the idea, producing a creatively eclectic tale. Dummy is full of exciting surprising laughs, true heart, and enough dysfunctional characters to fill a Wes Anderson film.
Nearing 30, jobless, and living at home with his lunatic Jewish family, Steven is a wimpy soft-spoken schlemiel who devotes all his time to becoming a working ventriloquist. He keeps constant company with his newly purchased wooden friend, dealing with issues of self-loathing while clumsily practicing his routine. The dummy (who is unnamed because he doesn't like any of Steven's choices) becomes more than just Steven's alter-ego -- he becomes Steven's conscience, letting him know during private conversations that he should act like a man, get off his ass, and get on with life.
That opinion is shared by Steven's close friend Fannie (Milla Jovovich), a punked-out wannabe singer with no direction, no future, and a seriously huge temper. When Steven expresses mild interest in his employment counselor, Lorena (the instantly likable Vera Farmiga), Fannie organizes a commando-style stalker session at the girl's house. Fannie believes that pushing the meek Steven into this demented action displays a level of passion that he needs to feel. She's probably right.
The idea of "making things happen" is central to Pritikin's story, and it provides his characters with a sad nobility, a humble level of self-respect that comes with possessing unfulfilled dreams. The filmmaker then places this collection of unrealized ambitions into absurdly comic settings. Steven's sister Heidi (Illeana Douglas) tries to be a successful wedding planner, but her only client is a Jewish princess with no taste and a weight issue. Fannie is dying to become a punk-rock star, but dives into an unbelievable alternative when it becomes available. Lorena confides in Steven about a traumatic traffic accident; his immediate reply: "I always look both ways when I cross the street."
That sort of naïve sincerity gives Dummy a strong tenderness, one completely anchored by Brody's daring and dedicated performance. He always keeps Steven hopeful but not terribly ambitious, strange but not dangerous. It's delicate, well-plotted acting topped off by Brody's fairly competent ventriloquism abilities.
The rest of the cast is completely worthy of being in Brody's company. Veteran actors (and real-life couple) Jessica Walter and Ron Leibman get big laughs as Steven's parents: she, the typical Jewish mother feeding everyone; he, a retiree building model war vessels and watching porn. Jovovich is a lethal combination of raw firepower and inner warmth, and Farmiga absolutely glows as a woman who's just as hesitant as the rest, even if she is saner.
Dummy has some final act issues that seem to be the mark of an unpracticed filmmaker -- Pritikin's confident direction and creative, spot-on editing take a bit of a beating -- but that early mention of Wes Anderson is appropriate. Like Anderson's work, Dummy has a crazed surreal surface with a soft warm center. And it's blessed by a lead performance of occasional genius.
Reviewed at the 2003 Independent Film Festival of Boston.
Now who's the dummy?