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A 'Dummy' that's really pretty smart

September 12, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Since Adrien Brody took off for Europe in the summer of 2001 to begin work on "The Pianist" a day after completing "Dummy," it seems safe to say that the Oscar the Roman Polanski film brought him had a lot to do with today's at-long-last release of the earlier film.

If that is the case, then all the more power to the Oscar, for writer-director Greg Pritikin's small-scale debut feature is a romantic comedy of considerable charm and humor. Although Brody may dominate the film with his shy, aspiring ventriloquist, it affords standout opportunities for Milla Jovovich, Illeana Douglas, Vera Farmiga and Jared Harris, with fine support from Jessica Walter and Ron Leibman.

Ten years after picking up their high school diplomas, Steven (Brody) and his lifelong friend Fanny (Jovovich) are living lives of quiet desperation in the comfort of their parents' homes in an upscale Manhattan commuter suburb in New Jersey. Actually, Fanny is pretty noisy, for she lives most of the time as Fangora, her punk rocker persona. Fangora and her band have been going nowhere for a long time, but she remains undeterred. Steven, who dreams of becoming a ventriloquist, has just been fired from his bottom-feeder office job, which fires up his desire to pursue a performing career.

At a state employment agency Steven tells a pretty, sympathetic job counselor, Lorena (Farmiga), that ventriloquism is his passion. By the time she has succeeded in lining him up with a "Broadway Danny Rose"-type agent, Steven realizes he is deeply attracted to Lorena but hasn't a clue how to express himself. However, he also realizes that through his boyish-looking dummy, he can give voice to his conscience and express a no-nonsense brashness he would never dare in his own life.

Meanwhile, Steven's neurotic sister Heidi (Douglas) is also still living at home. She is a wedding counselor who is facing a big job as her own marriage plans blow up when her fiance, Michael (Harris), an accountant with acting aspirations, makes local headlines for having been arrested on a drunk-and-disorderly charge.

Pritikin brings imagination and humor to the unraveling of the destinies of these people, and he allows his key characters to emerge sympathetically for all their foibles. (Steven and Heidi's parents, however, played by Walter and Leibman, remain amusing and steadfastly dim.) Brody, who actually became an accomplished ventriloquist for this role, as well as Jovovich, Douglas, Farmiga and Harris, all have a chance to reveal the complexities of their characters.

Douglas is typically expert in discovering the comic possibilities in the dilemma of an intelligent woman trapped in a state of perpetual frustration. Pritikin relies on shtick to get his story started but fortunately sloughs it off as he hits his stride. "Dummy" is a modest movie with no shortage of pleasurable pluses.



MPAA rating: R for language

Times guidelines: Suitable fare for older teens; some strong language

but not in excess

Adrien Brody...Steven Schoichet

Milla Jovovich...Fangora

Illeana Douglas...Heidi Schoichet

Vera Farmiga...Lorena

Jared Harris...Michael

An Artisan Entertainment release. Writer-director Greg Pritikin. Producers Richard Temtchine, Bob Fagan. Cinematographer Horacio Marquinez. Editor Bill Henry; final edit by Michael Palmerio. Music Paul Wallfisch. Songs Mike Ruekberg. Costumes Marie Abma. Production designer Charlotte Bourke. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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