Sometimes good actors happen to bad movies, but more often good actors happen to average movies. Such is the case with Greg Pritkin’s half stirring/half frustrating “Dummy,” an odd movie about a socially stunted man (Adrian Brody) closing in on 30 who still lives with his parents and relates to people through his ventriloquist dummy. Sounds a little kooky, and perhaps a little gimmicky, too? “Dummy” is both, but mostly the movie clicks along enjoyably enough for four reasons: Brody, Illeana Douglas, Milla Jovovich and Vera Farmiga. This is a lesson in character acting and a kind of survival guide for good actors who find themselves in movies that don’t deserve them.
Brody leads this sublime cast as Steven, a man with no social skills and, thanks to his smothering parents (Jessica Walter and Ron Leibman, both in fine form), no dignity. But he does have two things: a new dummy and a faithful best friend, Fangora (Jovovich), a foul-mouthed dweeb who aspires to be singer. Getting fired from his go-nowhere job is all the push he needs to become a ventriloquist — his lifelong dream – and he lands a few jobs with help from his unemployment counselor Lorena (Farmiga). The two begin a tentative flirtation that, at times, threatens to become one of the sweetest, strangest couplings since “Harold and Maude.”
Here is where frustration rears its ugly head. Actors as good as Brody, who seems as at ease playing a social pariah as he does a hip hustler, and Farmiga, who could make Courtney Love a sympathetic character, deserve better than a subplot about a stalker (Jared Harris) chasing Steven’s sister Heidi (Douglas), who also lives at home. It feels tacked on, as if Pritkin finished the script, then thought to himself “Oh no! I need comic relief!” What about all the endearing oddness? The subplot almost renders it meaningless. Worse, there’s the insulting wrap-up that doesn’t fit the plot or suit the characters, who end up standing around barely concealing their exasperation. You get the sense there, in those last few minutes, that this isn’t what they signed on for. Hear hear.
Still, hating a movie with such strong acting doesn’t seem fair (or, according to my genetic code, possible). The actors rise above the worst parts of this material and make us forget Pritkin’s attempts to insult our intelligence. Leibman and Walter are funny but believable as Steven’s parents, who treat him as an oddball because they’re not sure how to handle a grown man who talks to a dummy. (Walter in particular has killer instincts for line delivery — listen for zingers like “better an unwed mother than just plain unwed.”) Douglas, forever the character actress, never the star, registers the humiliation of being reduced to begging her mother for the car keys. Farmiga adds another spot-on performance to her eclectic resume, showing us what Lorena sees in a shy misfit like Steven and making us see it as well. As for Brody, this is just another example of why he’s one his generation’s finest actors. In less capable hands, Steven could have been too menacing or off-putting. Brody has better instincts than that, and he finds the right balance of awkwardness and heart in Steven. He’s just a guy who was too scared to let life in until he had a good reason.
The real shocker here, however, is Milla Jovovich. This is amazing, energetic stuff from someone who’s made a career of kicking zombie ass and maintaining her CoverGirl finish while doing it. Whether she’s spewing profanity that gets her kicked out of Target or chasing a dream to become a Yiddish folk singer, Fangora’s the kind of character you don’t forget. That Jovovich gives us little glimpses into her post-high school anxieties, her fear of becoming what her mother expects — a nobody — is an unexpected bonus. In a movie like “Dummy,” that has ambition but no will to use it, that’s a nice surprise.