Dummy Movie Review

Just before Adrien Brody delivered his Oscar-winning performance as an isolated and frightened Holocaust survivor in The Pianist, he played a whole different kind of isolated and frightened. As Steven, a lonely underachiever in Greg Pritikin's fantastic indie comedy Dummy, Brody finds solace not in piano music, but in the twisted art of ventriloquism.

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?


Comments

Dummy Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2002

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