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Review: “Dummy” (2002)

dummySometimes 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.

Grade: C

Convoluted “Brothers Bloom” signals emergence of bright new talent

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Brody, Weisz and Ruffalo get their con on in "The Brothers Bloom."

Rian Johnson is the Lucinda Williams of Hollywood. In his career, he’s directed precisely two feature-length films, “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom,” both imaginative and damn-near brilliant. The former, an indie gem about a high school loner determined to find his vanished ex-girlfriend, signaled the appearance of a fledgling talent. But the latter? Johnson’s second creation shows that talent in full, crazy-twisty inventive bloom. Worry not that he’s sold out, for a bigger budget and three top-list talents have done nothing to dampen that indie creativity.

Such innovation becomes evident early on in “The Brothers Bloom,” a kind of fairytale/Picaresque novel hybrid about two long-con operator brothers bilking a clueless mark out of her inheritance. The mastermind is Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), a showboater who loves the game as much as he loves the money it produces. He’s a showman, writing all kinds of symbolism (which no one’s smart enough to catch) into his cons. Pulled along for the ride is his weary younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody). Bloom wants out, mostly because he’s not a real person; he only plays the parts his brother writes for him. “He’s written me as the vulnerable antihero, and that’s why you think you want to kiss me,” he tells the leggy brunette he meets in a bar. Bloom’s an island, he knows it and he wants no more of his grifter lifestyle.

Until he meets Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The eccentric serial hobbyist gets drawn into the con to end all cons. And it’s a doozy, spanning continents and involving a creepy Beligian (Robbie Coltrane), an alluring explosives expert (Rinko Kikuchi), an eighth-century manuscript and a mysterious Russian fellow named Diamond Dog (Maximillian Schell), dastardly despite his lack of depth perception.

Rest assured there’s much more to the story than this, but it’s important to go into “The Brothers Bloom” with little information. The storyline’s something of an elaborate hamster playground, a maze with overlapping subplots that run smack into other subplots; some of these lead back to the beginning, while others point toward the numerous conclusions. Yet the strategy isn’t entirely successful. Fool moviegoers once, maybe twice, and they’ll likely stick with the gimmick. (It does, after all, reward intelligence.) Do it too many times and it becomes downright annoying. Thus, for awhile, all this conning and reconning and unconning seems enough to drown out all my chatter about Johnson’s ingenuity.

But wait. There are saving graces in “Brothers Bloom,” and they come in the form of inside jokes, cinematography and acting. Johnson peppers all sorts of puns and tricks in that add a sense of mischief, from obscure literary references to split-second sight gags. Then there’s Steve Yeldin’s cinematography. His work is fairly impressive, with his lensing capturing the landscapes (Montenegro, Prague) in a way that gives the film a timeless, expansive feel that seems a fitting backdrop for the essence of Johnson’s characters.

And, oh, the characters. Ruffalo’s an actor with a gift for understatement who trafficks in little expressions, so it’s nice to see him take on a character who thrives on melodrama. He deserves more than a little credit for making Stephen, a control freak with a serious God complex, someone worth liking. Weisz, underappreciated as a comic actress, finds spunk and optimism in Penelope, who grew up a shut in and now views the world with more interest than fear. Her energy seems overwhelming at times, sure, but there’s a childlike wonder that charms more than it irritates. And anyone who follows Brody knows his characters are all about externalizing the internal using just the eyes. He’s perfected the sadsack look — vulnerable antihero suits him better than self-deprecating wiseass suits John Cusack — but lets his eyes suggest more than plain old misery. Watching Bloom warm to Penelope, who’s every bit as stuck and lost as he is, is more honest than it ought to be in about professional liars.

Then again, “The Brothers Bloom” isn’t exactly a color-inside-the-lines con movie. There’s more heart than brain but less brain than ambition. Maybe Johnson shoots a little too high, maybe he tries a little to hard to be clever. But I can’t shake the feeling this guy’s got a masterpiece in him somewhere, and I can’t wait to see it. Talent like this is rare and refreshing.  

Grade: B-