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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

Perfect for every part (part deux)

DISCLAIMER: Pay no attention to the voices in your head that may have told you this was going to be a definitive — or even vaguely highbrow — list of actresses who seem right for every role. These voices, which may have some really good ideas sometimes, will steer you wrong here in a blog where the author ranks both “Young Frankenstein” and “Apocalypse Now” in the Greatest Movies Ever Made category.

Yeesh. Glad we got that out of the way. Now I’ll forge ahead to part two of my list, a tribute to the actresses who seem to make every character their own. Frances McDormand, of course, is our starter — and not just because Ebert said so. She’s a Coen brothers staple (she’s, uh, married to Joel), but she’s had an outstanding career outside Coenland that includes Oscar nods for drama parts (“North Country,” “Mississippi Burning”) and coming-of-age tales (“Almost Famous”). Whatever she does, she does well, and that makes her seem like a great new discovery every time I see her.

And the remaining nine actresses are:

  • Amy Adams — Amy, Amy, Amy. My love for Amy dates back to “Junebug,” when she proved a bubbly chatterbox could have depth. Then again, she gives depth to all her distinctive characters, from the serious bit parts (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) to fairy tale musicals (“Enchanted”) to smart-dumb comedies (“Talladega Nights”). She just can’t keep her darn light hidden.
  • Penélope Cruz — When Almodovar introduced Cruz in “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” the world fell in love, and so did I. Inevitably she got thrust into numerous romantic comedies, but then she dared to go off the grid, take serious roles (i.e., “Elegy”) and, in “Blow” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” shred the notion that she was just some Spanish Sandra Bullock. 
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal — There’s just something about Gyllenhaal. It’s not that she oozes sexuality (she does) or that she’s possessed of a strange otherworldly kind of beauty (she is). No, I think it’s that she’s willing to get naked, physically and emotionally, to find her characters. From mainstream parts (“World Trade Center,” “Dark Knight”) to the really bold stuff (“Secretary,” “Sherrybaby”), she goes all in every time.
  • Milla Jovovich — I’ll catch hell for including a supermodel here, and I know it. So Jovovich started off as a hot action starlet and not an Oscar contender — what of it? She’s got real acting chops (she lit up the screen in “Dummy” and “You Stupid Man”) and she’s not afraid to take on parts that are fun and funny and action-oriented. Laugh if you must, but Milla’s more than a pretty face.
  • Queen Latifah — Enter controversial choice No. 2. You may be tempted to think I chose her to fill some sort of racial quota. As if. Dana Owens ended up here because she deserves to be. Here is an actress who has spent too long making terrible movies bearable (“Bringing Down the House”) and too long playing sidekicks (“Stranger Than Fiction”). Give her a lead in something like “Last Holiday,” “Chicago” or “Set It Off” and she’ll surprise you. She’s got versatility, and it’s about time Hollywood gave her more opportunities to show it.
  • Laura Linney — Linney’s the best actress who will never win an Oscar. Why? She’s too good at being plain people, and plain people rarely get gold statues. Still, that hardly means this versatile actress plays one character over and over. She does something a little different every time, sometimes stepping out of the indie box (“Breach,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). She’s one to watch.
  • Kate Winslet — Kate Winslet’s the silver screen equivalent of a extreme athlete. She’s totally unafraid to take chances, consistently picking parts that involve emotional or physical nudity. As a result, she’s done erotica, fantasy (“Heavenly Creatures,” her big break), literary adaptations (the best was “Little Children”) and everything in-between. She’s just astounding, pure and simple.
  • Renee Zellwegger — This cherubic Texan has picked some doozies in her career (re: “New in Town”), but she always rises above the most derivative scripts. Bonus: She’s fearless in the face of the unknown, be it musicals or Civil War-era fare, and she attacks every part with enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm when it’s backed by real talent.

As always, bloggers, I await your suggestions…