What a difference an Oscar night makes. When “Dummy,” the film Adrien Brody made immediately prior to “The Pianist,” was unveiled at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in early March, this indie seriocomedy centered upon a highly dysfunctional New Jersey family looked like a highly questionable prospect for theatrical pickup. That should change now, although the fan base this year’s best actor winner has acquired will still hardly be excited by the prospect of seeing him play a “slow” mama’s boy who comes out of his shell by becoming a ventriloquist. More a middle-brow audience pleaser than a fest item, pic now looks poised for a modest theatrical life prior to its more fitting video/cable/tube destiny.
Writer-director Michael Pritikin previously shared writing and helming responsibilities with Greg Rosen on the 1998 comedy-of-bisexuality indie “Totally Confused,” in which he also starred. “Dummy” marks a step up at least in terms of cast, as the expert thesps here are able to maximize the intermittently amusing and heavily Jewish humor that reps the film’s most successful dimension.
Certainly the premise is none too promising. Brody, nerdified with specs and a sheepish manner, plays Steve, a shy fellow with an insensitive mom (Jessica Walter); a retired dad (Ron Leibman) now into building plastic models; and a bitter older sister, Heidi (Illeana Douglas), who, like Steve, still lives at home and loves telling her brother what a loser he is.
After watching Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” on TV, Steve buys a dummy (who later quips that his ilk now prefer to be called “people of wood”), quits his job and begins his “career” at an old folks’ home appearance. The dummy, of course, is much more loquacious and blunt than his master has ever dared to be, and this helps Steve negotiate the beginnings of a romance with a sympathetic unemployment office worker, Lorena (appealing newcomer Vera Farmiga), who helps him find gigs.
Although far from inspired, central plotline is not as cloying as it might have been due to the impudent humor that keeps bubbling to the surface. Additional help in this regard is provided by Steve’s platonic friend Fangora (Milla Jovovich), a clueless punk rocker whose musical and fashion tastes are 20 years out of date and who is hired to perform at a Jewish wedding provided she can do klezmer. As energetically enacted by Jovovich, Fangora’s frantic efforts to learn Yiddish (and her subsequent mangled pronunciations) are pretty funny and help put over the film’s hectic, wedding-set finale.
Less helpful is an annoying subplot featuring Jared Harris as a former b.f. of Heidi’s who’s now stalking her, not to mention the thoroughly mediocre lensing and editing, which put the picture at the lower end of technical acceptability for a commercial feature.
Brody, who did his own ventriloquism to deliberately variable effect, gives a sweetly sympathetic spin to the retiring Steve, and the offbeat Farmiga makes the vulnerable Lorena a good match for him. At this stage, Pritikin shows considerably more aptitude for writing than for directing, and the exuberant eruptions of humor lead one to suspect he should try for outright comedy next time and forget the sentiment.