directed by Greg Pritikin
(Artisan, 2002)

Young adulthood can be a trying enough time when the young adult in question fits in, in every way. But what if you're a novice ventriloquist who's still living at home -- or his sister, a wedding planner whose own wedding fell through -- or the ventriloquist's best friend, a seething punk rock singer. What then?

Dummy is full of people like that, people who wake up one day as adults, realize with horror that they've been out of high school for a decade and then think, "What am I still doing here? Shouldn't I be someone else by now?"

In the words of the great Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?"

Writer/director Greg Pritikin knows there's lots more out there, but he also shows, in this 2002 film, how hard it can be to get a grasp on getting what you want. Dummy is about people taking their first tentative steps toward figuring out what kind of person they want to be, and about the fear there is in realizing you might not make it.

Dummy was part of a great year for Adrien Brody, whose performance in The Pianist garnered him an Academy Award. This time around his mode of communication is through a ventriloquist's dummy. Brody's Steve follows his whim one day and ends up the owner of a dummy he can't use with any skill, but which emboldens him to break out of his shell nonetheless.

Using a prop to speak for you, even a prop as charming as Steve's dummy, isn't a new plot device, but Brody turns it into a moving piece of work, his hesitations and faltering starts segueing into leaps of faith as his own voice takes over.

Steve's sister Heidi, meanwhile, is battling a mother who can't believe Heidi ditched her fiance -- even though he was an abusive basket case. Heidi's struggling to make it as a wedding planner, creating happy days for brides she secretly loathes, all the while begging over the breakfast table to borrow Mom and Dad's car so she can make business appointments. Her dream to become a torch singer, needless to say, was long ago quashed by Mom in her eagerness to have Heidi pursue something more "practical."

The frustration oozing from Illeana Douglas as Heidi is always just at the spillover point, the tremor in her voice just at the breaking point.

It's to the massive credit of both Brody and Douglas that these siblings, who bicker like 15-year-olds, still hold onto some innate sense of trying to do things right.

The same can be said of Milla Jovovich as Fangora, Steve's best friend. A frontwoman for a truly mediocre punk-rock band, Fangora's given another chance when Heidi's bride requests a klezmer band for her reception. Fangora speaks no Yiddish, has no idea what klezmer is or how to dance the hora (her misunderstanding of that word is a classic line in Dummy), but Fangora's no fool -- and in her quest for a paying gig, she actually finds her calling.

Brody, Douglas and Jovovich have turned what could have been a trio of simply pitiful characters into something more: a trio of 20-somethings whose resilience and small moments of courage are both humorous and, in their own way, heroic.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 21 August 2004

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