I'm sure that when Greg Pritikin made his first feature film, "Dummy," now in theaters, he had no inkling that he had inadvertently grabbed an indie-film brass ring. But when he cast Adrien Brody as a maladroit but sweet schlemiel who is obsessed with ventriloquism as the way to win a woman's heart, Pritikin really lucked out. Up to that point in his career, Brody was a well-regarded young actor who had displayed a wide range in American independent films. Then came "The Pianist," the Oscar, the Kiss and, suddenly, Brody is a movie star. Which means that "Dummy," a film that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks, is making its way into theaters, and that is not at all a bad thing.
Pritikin's film takes place in a sort of every-suburb America of tract houses with manicured lawns and two-car garages, and is utterly devoid of anything to place it in historical time. Even the cars and the music -- whether punk, show tunes or klez-punk -- could be 20 years old, and the film's story of a hapless schmo trying to find a way to express himself despite his suffocating Jewish family is a Philip Roth retread from the 1970s.
And yet, on a certain unadventurous level, it works. Steven (Brody) is fired from his job when he tries to give notice after deciding to surrender to a lifelong ambition to take up ventriloquism. He lives at home with his overbearing mother (Jessica Walter), omni-absent father (Ron Liebman) and chronically depressed sister, a failed singer-turned-wedding planner (Illeana Douglas). When he meets his unemployment counselor, Lorraina (Vera Farmiga), he immediately falls madly in love. With his deranged punk-rocker friend Fanny (Milla Jovovich) in a splendid against-the-grain performanc as his wildly inept guide, he tries to woo her, with disastrous results. Only when he begins to express himself through his dummy does the real, warm, sweet Steven emerge.
Although Pritikin seems to be laboring to tie up plot ends almost from the film's opening shot, the film has a cheerfully dopey quality that can be quite winning. You know that Steven and his dummy are fated to bring happiness to Lorraina, his sister, Fanny and her cataleptic band and everyone else in the state of New Jersey (although Pritikin manages one hilarious and unexpected surprise during the final credits).
But for all its obviousness and the mechanical working-out of plot, "Dummy" has a certain tenderness towards its characters that is satisfying for its sheer unexpectedness. Pritikin starts out unpromisingly with a shrill, cartoonish tone, but once he gets the worst of the exposition out of the way, there is a warmth here that is quite pleasant. Moreover, "Dummy" has at least one really lovely moment of pure silence, a two-shot, held for nearly a minute, of a painfully awkward silence between the perpetually uncertain Steven and an expectant Lorraina; the discomfort in the air is palpable and moving.
It's pretty hard to tell where a new director will go from the evidence of only one film, but Pritikin bears watching. After all, who could have guessed where Brody would land?
"Dummy" is in theaters now.