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Home, as they say, is where the heart is. It can also, of course, be the place where the freaks and losers come to roost, as we’ve seen in any number of dysfunctional family dramedies over the years. From the cringe-worthy misanthropes that populate Todd Solondz’s best films to the more likable, if no less fractured, outsiders who inhabit Wes Anderson’s candy-colored universe, odd, sparring relatives have been a staple in indie films for decades, now, and the trend shows no sign of declining anytime soon. Think of it as “Cops” syndrome: no matter how screwed up our own families might be, there’s always a more screwed up bunch of folks waiting for us on the silver screen.

Writer-director Greg Pritikin’s Dummy (2002) is so well-ensconced within the “lovable outsider/screwed-up family” subgenre that an overriding sense of deja vu imbues every frame: you might not have seen this particular film before but it’ll probably feel like you have. This sense of familiarity ends up working both for and against the film: just like found-footage enthusiasts and zombie film aficionados have come to find, the “if you’ve seen one…” argument handily applies here. If quirky, combative families and sweetly “weird” loners are your thing, there’s plenty to tide you over until you get your next fix. If, however, you’re looking for a little more individuality from your films, I have a sneaking suspicion that Dummy will prove to be a largely forgettable experience, the cinematic equivalent of eating a three-course meal composed entirely of cotton candy.

In this particular instance, our awkward, outsider “hero” is Steven (Adrien Brody), a ventriloquism enthusiast who still lives at home, even as he inches ever closer to his third decade on the planet. His family is the kind of loud, brash, dysfunctional clan who should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen an indie drama-comedy in the past 15 years: mother, Fern (Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter), is a hyper-critical nitpicker; father, Lou (Ron Leibman), spends every minute of his begrudged retirement building model boats and ignoring his family and sister, Heidi (Illeana Douglas), is a wedding planner whose own romantic relationship could best be described as “hideous” and who takes more casual emotional abuse from her parents than Family Guy’s Meg.

When Steven loses his anonymous job at an equally anonymous electronics company, he ends up at the unemployment office, where he decides to pursue his “dream job”: he wants to be a master ventriloquist, just like his old hero, Edgar Bergen. The only problem, of course, is that Steven just isn’t very good: even his own dummy (which he never bothers to name) knows this beyond a shadow of a doubt. As Steven strikes up an awkward, tentative romance with Lorena (Vera Farmiga), the unassuming employment agent who tries to help him realize his life-long dream, he also has to deal with Fangora (Milla Jovovich), his obnoxious, brash, loud-mouthed best friend and Michael (Mad Men’s Jared Harris), his sister’s pathetic, unstable, stalkery ex-fiancee. It all culminates in a disastrous wedding where Steven must finally make the decision to come out from behind his dummy and actually live his life…or lose it!

Aside from the great cast, there’s little about Dummy that really differentiates it from any number of similar indie dramedies. Shy, unassuming but ultimately wise protagonist with a “weird” quirk? Check. Snarky, cynical sibling with a bad relationship? Yup. Bickering parents who micromanage their grown children’s’ lives? Goofball, antisocial best friend who causes chaos wherever they go? Double check. Every expected beat is present and accounted for, every necessary trope and cliché checked off the master list. There’s an overriding sense of awkward mortification that underscores everything, sure, but that’s not exactly revolutionary for this particular type of film.

If the story and writing behind Dummy is decidedly old hat and corny, the film features enough good performances to make it worth a watch, especially for fans of the cast. Adrien Brody is one of those chameleonic actors who always manages to shine, regardless of the production, and Dummy is no exception: there’s a tender vulnerability to his performance that makes us pull for Steven regardless of how pathetic he often seems. Vera Farmiga, currently turning heads as Norman’s overbearing mother on TV’s Bates Motel, is equally great (and under-stated) as his love interest and the couple have genuine chemistry that starts at “meet cute” but ends in territory closer to real life. Illeana Douglas nearly steals the whole show as Steven’s neurotic sister in a role that could easily come across as humiliating (see the aforementioned Meg Griffin reference) but manages to locate itself just south of “tortured nobility.” She’s always been a formidable presence, on-screen, but Dummy is easily one of very best, most self-assured performances: the scene where she, finally, smashes her dad’s stupid model boat is unbelievably satisfying.

We also get great turns from Jessica Walter (does anyone do “bitchy mom” better than Mrs. Bluth/Archer?) and Ron Leibman as the ‘rents and Jared Harris as the pathetic ex. Only Milla Jovovich ends up disappointing as Steven’s ridiculously high-maintenance best friend: blame it on the way the character is written or the actual performance but everything about Fangora is insufferable and obnoxious. Throughout the entire film, my one, overriding thought was “Why the hell doesn’t Steven play hide-and-go-seek” with her and run for the hills as soon as her eyes are closed?

I’m also happy to pour a healthy helping of derision on the ridiculously sappy “singer-songwriter”-esque songs that rear their ugly heads, from time to time. I’m not sure if the tunes are meant as subtle (or not so) commentary on the proceedings or are just impossibly on-the-nose but they never failed to pull me right out of the film. Self-referential songs can move a film forward (see Cat Ballou (1965) for a good example) or stop it cold in its tracks and it’s not difficult to judge which direction I felt Dummy erred on. Suffice to say that any element of a film that calls undue attention to itself is, ultimately, unsuccessful and Dummy’s silly score proves that by a country mile.

Ultimately, Dummy isn’t a terrible film but it is a terribly predictable one. There are enough good performances here (particularly Brody and Farmiga) to make this worth a watch on a lazy Sunday but nothing else really stands out. Most tellingly, Dummy is the kind of film that seems slavishly devoted to pleasing its audience, at the risk of any real tension or stakes: the overly sunny finale manages to snatch a traditionally happy ending from the clutches of a much braver (if still clichéd) possibility. Like Steven’s dummy, Pritikin’s Dummy is a largely inert force that manages to come to life, at times, but never really achieves the vitality that it deserves. Pinocchio might have become a real boy, in the end, but Dummy never quite becomes that animated.

 

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