USA, 2002. Rated R. 90 minutes.

Cast: Adrien Brody, Illeana Douglas, Milla Jovovich, Vera Farmiga, Jessica Walter, Ron Leibman, Jared Harris
Writer: Greg Pritikin
Original Music: Mike Ruekberg
Cinematography: Horatio Marquinez
Producers: Bob Fagan, Richard Temtchine
Director: Greg Pritikin


Grade: B Review by Dominic Varle

Read the AboutFilm interview with Illeana Douglas and Greg Pritikin.

I  admit it: I am a cynical curmudgeon. If you asked me about reality TV, I'd tell you that I watch the McNeill-Lehrer Newshour. Clay and Ruben? Is that an ambulance-chasing law firm? Go see a romantic comedy? No, I really don't think so. Of course, the downside to such misanthropy is the tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. Avoiding the entire oeuvre of J-Lo and her mediocre ilk also means missing an absolute gem like Dummy—a romantic comedy that is actually funny and romantic. Who knew that films like this were still made?

Fascinated by film from childhood, first-time director Greg Pritikin knows what it takes to make a good one, starting with a good script. How else would he land such a stellar cast for a song? Packing in a clutch of well-rounded characters in farcical (but just short of far-fetched) situations, Dummy takes its lead from the romantic-screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s. Appearing here before he made The Pianist, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody (Steven) turns his hand to comedy as a hapless nebbish still living at home with his parents (real-life couple Jessica Walter and Ron Leibman). Dressed like he owns shares in Kmart, Steven is desperate to quit office drudgery and follow his dream: to be a ventriloquist. So he does. After falling for his employment counselor Lorena (the doe-eyed Vera Farmiga), his loopy best friend Fangora (Milla Jovovich) encourages him to express his appreciation as an entrée to romance. Predictably enough, disaster ensues. One restraining order later, the only thing Steven is whispering sweet nothings to is his dummy.
Brody and Jovovich
Adrien Brody and Milla Jovovich in Dummy.

Wonderful as Brody is—as a leading man, as a comic foil for his dummy and as a ventriloquist—Jovovich is a revelation as the wildcard wannabe singer Fangora. (If Jay and Silent Bob were Dr. Frankenstein, Fangora would be their monster. With ADD.) She lands her first gig by telling Steven's frustrated wedding-planner sister (the ever-dependable Illeana Douglas) that her punk combo is actually a Klezmer band. She persuades Steven to break his restraining order and send a contrite videotaped apology to Lorena. All this, like every character's deeds in Dummy, is done with the best possible intentions.

Just like ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, Pritikin knows to give the best gags to the dummy, but Brody gets to show his comic timing too. His dad makes model battleships in the basement while watching porn. His mom fixes his decrepit grandma "cups of brisket" for dinner, and his sister is pursued by her alcoholic ex-fiancé. Understandably then, he's perplexed when Lorena tells him on their first date, "I think it's great that you live with your folks." "You don't think it's... suspicious?" Brody deadpans. It may be slightly overstating things to suggest that Steven, like PG Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, manages to say both the wrong thing and the right thing at the same time. But when Lorena tells him that her husband was killed by a car on their wedding day, Steven's endearing reply is pure Wooster—"I look both ways before I cross the street."

Despite its good points—and there are many—I'd be lying if I said Dummy was uniformly excellent. The music is grating. If the actors and director have done their job properly, there's no reason to re-state it musically. Especially in song. The film's slightly overcooked message—that life is enriched by pursuing our dreams, however modest they may appear to others—while a sweet sentiment, delivers rather predictable "feel good" results. For all the director's intentions (and every character's best intentions), Dummy is less about where we end up, and more about how we get there. So, while I didn't leave the cinema skipping gaily down the street (although I thought about it), in Dummy there may yet be a little lesson to be learned by this particular curmudgeon. Can a subscription to Us Weekly be far behind?

Review © September 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Artisan Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

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