Reviewed By Dennis Swennumson
Posted 07/31/04 18:27:52

"Not all ventriloquist dummies come to life and murder. Who knew?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When it comes to its qualities, “Dummy” is a lot like its main character, the soft-spoken Steven Schoichet, a downtrodden would-be ventriloquist still living with his parents. Steven, played by Adrien Brody, is instantly likable, but he’s lacking in areas like gaining steady employment and sticking up for himself, worst of all, he’s woefully incapable of having any social aptitude. “Dummy” has great sense of realistic yet absurd humor and a very human, bittersweet poignancy. These are excellent qualities that make “Dummy” worth watching, but the film has some flaws that are obviously a product of writer-director Greg Pritikin’s still-in-development style and focus. These are drawbacks that almost swamp the movie, but it’s the characters and acting that lend the film its worth-your-time quality.

Released after Brody’s 2003 Oscar win for “The Pianist”, but filmed years earlier, “Dummy” shows how truly talented an actor Adrien Brody is. He plays Steven with an implied fragility that makes him a character the audience cares for, he’s the nice guy who hopefully won’t finish last. After a rough day it’s Steven’s routine to consult his ventriloquist dummy for therapy and it’s unique to watch the character develop in this way. Instead of learning the fears and insecurities of a person develop through actions, we learn the information from the dummy’s responses. It’s a shame that “Dummy” had to be kept on the shelf while waiting for Brody to become the star he was always projected to be, but releasing this film and “Love the Hardway” after the fact has actually proven to be beneficial. Everyone looks to see what projects the award winners will pursue next, and though technically these films were made for, Brody has proven that his Oscar win was completely legitimate.

Most of the story comes with Steven’s relationship with Lorena (Vera Farmiga, who has a part in the remake of the “Manchurian Candidate”), an unemployment office worker and single mother. They meet when Steven goes to apply for any openings in ventriloquism, an odd field of work that sparks her intrigue. Through the blunt encouragement of Steven’s only human confidant, the aspiring punk singer Fannie (Milla Jovovich), he pursues her and tries to get a date. Fannie’s methods aren’t exactly orthodox, and their scheme results in a restraining order against Steven. The rest of the film revolves around Steven lifting the order and wooing Lorena and suffering through various setbacks.

The other supporting characters, mostly the Schoichet family, make the movie. There’s the older sister Heidi (Illeana Douglas), recovering from breaking off her engagement to a moderately psychotic accountant who moonlights as an amateur actor to turn his life around. All of this combines with a wedding planning business she’s trying to get off the ground; it’s a personal/professional life collision. Steven’s parents probably would disapprove of his new profession, but his mother has always been overly supportive and his father focuses only on his model war ships. There’s a dinner scene with the entire family, Lorena and her young daughter that’s embarrassing and very funny, it’s the kind of awkward family introduction that makes meeting the Sawyer clan of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” look like a pleasant occasion.

Some of the editing in “Dummy” leaves something to be desired, there are quick scenes placed out of order that work as great punch lines, but some of the conversations (watch the scene of Heidi’s blowup in the kitchen) look terribly out of sync. Sometimes Protein’s choices of music work wonderfully to accent a scene, other times it adds a little too much melodrama for what is generally a light character study.

Nonetheless, these technical flaws are from ruining the film, it’s frequently funny, has characters that can truly be identified with and features a performance that ensures that Adrien Brody’s Oscar win was far from a fluke.

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