See if the following sounds familiar….
“American Dummy” is the story of super-nebbish ventriloquist Jerry (real life ventriloquist Otto). Jerry’s work with his wooden partner, Dino (real life ventriloquist dummy George) is thoroughly uninspired and the New York comedy club audience reacts with silent contempt. Sadly, the unfunny, hate-filled, sub-“Diceman” spewings of Tony Metropolis (SNL graduate and co-executive producer Jim Breuer) and his even less talented Guido toady, Sal Salvino (Pete Correale), are greeted with uproarious laughter and adulation.
After being harshly instructed to find some talent by his mercenary boss (Lewis Black of “The Daily Show”), Jerry hears a voice in a trash can, which belongs to an abandoned dummy, Fritz (George again, now wearing a black hairpiece and eyebrows.)
Fritz seems to have a life of his own and is three times as foul and eight times as hateful as Tony Metropolis. Naturally, the crowd adores the vile dummy and suddenly nerdy Jerry is king of the comedy hill. Of course, there’s the question of just who is in control, underlined by a fairly explicit man-woman-puppet menage a trois with the boss’s wife (porn star Nina Hartley). Of course, the good life is short lived and a murder spree is in the offing.
The lineage of “American Dummy” goes at least as far back as the 1945 English horror anthology, “Dead of Night,” which pitted ventriloquist Michæl Redgrave against his murderous dummy. In 1959, Jackie Cooper had problems with his wooden partner in a famous “Twilight Zone” episode. Nearly twenty years later, William Goldman and Richard Attenborough had the chutzpah to recycle the concept at feature length in the film version of Goldman’s novel, “Magic” starring the young Anthony Hopkins.
It’s no surprise that the premise has so much appeal. It’s a clever twist on the child’s gambit of blaming misbehavior on an imaginary friend, only with a Freudian edge. (Caliban-like puppets representing monsters of the id, which, gosh-darnit, us humans just can’t control.) And, really, it’s no great sin to lift an old premise, as long as you’re bringing something new to the party.
Cowriter-director Adam Dubin at first seems to make a real effort to say something new with his time-tested conceit. While their press material emphasizes humor, “American Dummy” comes off as more of a horror film – but one where the real horror is the hate that spews from comedians’ mouths.
Unfortunately, “American Dummy” loses its way and whatever message may have been intended goes undelivered. It’s poorly paced by rock video veteran Dubin (the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right to Party”). Far too much time is taken up by the despicable comedy routines. Worse, the conclusion avoids the truly disturbing aspects of the story and instead veers toward a thoroughly unimaginative climax and a hoaky, clichéd tag.
Also, the performances are surprisingly weak. Lewis Black is an absolutely brilliant stand-up, but here he barely registers. Dummy George, on the other hand, delivers the least wooden performance. (Sorry. Monsters of the writer’s id.)