With his nasal voice and slept-on hair, Steven (Adrien Brody) is a prototypical twentysomething shlemozzle: He lives with his parents, he can't keep even a crummy office job, and his only pal in all of suburban New York is a clueless punk rocker who calls herself Fangora (Milla Jovovich). But at least Steven knows what gets the girls: ventriloquism.
The romantic possibilities of having a talking doll perched on one's lap motivate him, but in Greg Pritikin's comedy Dummy, Steven also learns he's got a knack. Not only does he bring his little fellow to life with some vocal training and a single dexterous hand -- he also finds the puppet giving candid voice to his own self-doubts as he tenuously courts a sympathetic job counselor named Lorena (Vera Farmiga).
The joke in Dummy, though, isn't just the familiar one about ventriloquism dolls being conduits for their operators' darker sides. It's that Steven himself passively permits others to work his levers. Fangora, for instance, disastrously stage-manages his pursuit of Lorena, and his older sister Heidi's psychotic ex-boyfriend makes Steven deliver her messages about how great he's looking. Even the dummy (whom Steven pointedly never names) gets in on the act: After Steven's premature declaration of devotion prompts Lorena to call the cops, the blockhead taunts, "You gonna let a little restraining order stop you?"
Writer and director Pritikin sights up a bunch of easy targets, from the obsessive ex-boyfriend to the desperate show-biz marginals at a theatrical agent's office. And rather than being a resourceful single mom, Lorena too often becomes whatever the script requires, switching from alarmed to smitten to understanding at the twitch of a wire.
But Pritikin's touch is consistently surer with his actors. Ileana Douglas plays Heidi, a wedding planner -- like her brother still ensconced under their parents' roof -- with a tart intemperance, her character's acerbity a thin veil for her insecurity. A surprise is Jovovich (The Fifth Element), the model-cum-actress who amusingly disappears in the role of a crazy chick so desperate for success she passes her punk group off as a klezmer band (and learns Yiddish besides).
There are no such surprises with Brody, a terrific actor who's proved his chops in films including The Pianist. That's him doing all of his own ventriloquism and puppetry. More impressive is how he imbues sad-sack Steven with enough strength that you not only pull for him -- you also buy it when he starts to grow a spine.
That happens about two-thirds of the way through the film, when the darkish comedy starts turning into something like a sweet romance. It's a transition Pritikin could have flubbed as easily as a ventriloquist's punchline. But thanks to his actors, you can barely see his lips move.