Shove your hand up a puppet’s ass and make it sing like Etta James, and maybe you too could earn $100 milllion over five years. That’s the astonishing amount of money ventriloquist Terry Fator made after winning the second season of America’s Got Talent. You may roll your eyes—but damn, when that dummy belts out “At Last,” it’s much more likely your jaw will drop.
The careers of five artists are tracked in Dumbstruck, Mark Goffman’s slight but engaging documentary about the world of ventriloquism. Terry is clearly the anomaly here, having risen from the Vent Haven Convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky., (“the ventriloquism capital of the world”) to the Mirage in Las Vegas. The rest have varying degrees of success: Dylan, a 13-year-old who manipulates a black puppet he calls Reggie, bombs at a circus tryout. (His dad then encourages motocross.) Wilma, 6-foot-5 and on the high side of middle age, seems to treat ventriloquism more as a hobby, and during the course of filming she’s served an eviction notice. (Most of her family wants nothing to do with her.) More successful are former beauty queen Kim and cruise king Dan—a cruise-ship gig, apparently, is the brass ring ventriloquists clamor for, though Dan’s success hurts his personal life. As for cheerful, pretty 31-year-old Kim? It’s hard to mess up a personal life that doesn’t exist.
At times, it’s unclear whether Goffman wants the audience to see his subjects as freaks. Terry, again, exists on another plane—he’s too ridiculously talented not to have turned his hobby into a career. And Dylan’s got the excuse that he’s just a shy, awkward kid who uses ventriloquism as an outlet. Even Dan, who’s appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman, is presented as relatively normal: He understands his business is goofy, but at least it’s better than a 9-to-5.
The ladies, though, don’t come off so rosy. Poor Wilma not only looks like a bag-lady loon when she’s filmed officiating the wedding of two of her puppets (well, actually a puppet officiates, but you know), she’s also not very good, making her sad family history feel all the more tragic: There’s likely a bit more going on here than we’re made privy to, and perhaps a bigger disconnect from reality than the one any person who communicates through dummies must nurture. Kim, meanwhile, may also be on the verge of losing family. In an interview, her mother tries to play off a comment that she figured her daughter would have outgrown her affinity for puppets. As the film goes on, however, it’s obvious she finds the whole thing distasteful, particularly Kim’s habit of calling her puppets her children. Mom just wants Kim to settle down and have real kids.
Ultimately, Goffman regards his subjects affectionately. Clips from two Vent Haven conventions show a family reunion of sorts, with volunteers pointing out that most ventriloquists are quite reserved and isolated except when they come to the gathering. Each subject’s passion for the craft is clear; Kim, in particular, may seem crazy through her mother’s eyes, but her story is really that of any person with talent trying to make it big. When Goffman closes the film with scenes from the convention, accompanied by “What a Wonderful World,” it officially quiets any temptation to mock.
Henry’s Crime Directed by Malcolm Venville
Keanu Reeves is as blank as ever in Henry’s Crime, a quasi-comic heist flick from Malcolm Venville, director of last year’s significantly better quasi-comic heist flick 44 Inch Chest. Reeves plays Henry, a Buffalo, N.Y., toll-booth operator who’s tricked into being the getaway driver for his friends’ bank holdup. He gets three years in prison; six months into his sentence, his wife (Judy Greer) tells him she’s fallen in love with someone else. “Oh,” Henry says. “I’m really sorry,” she continues. “It’s all right,” Henry replies with zero emotion. Um, it is?
Reeves similarly sleepwalks through the rest of the film, whose absurd storyline is matched by its absurd casting: James Caan and Vera Farmiga head-scratchingly join Reeves and Greer (who plays it serious and is in the movie all of five minutes) in this travesty, with only the ladies keeping their pride in tact. Caan plays Henry’s daffy cellmate Max, who on the first day they meet prattles on about making the right choices and the importance of pursuing your dream. (One year—one year!—later, Henry says to Max, “You know, you never did tell me what your dream was,” as if they’d had the first conversation just the other day.)
Anyway, Max likes prison and routinely torpedoes his parole hearings so he can stay in the pen. But when Henry is freed, he asks that Max reconsider so he can help him out. You see, Henry discovers there’s an old tunnel between the bank he was alleged to have helped rob and a theater across the street. Julie (Farmiga), who’d hit Henry with her car, happens to be an actress in a production at the theater, which Henry discovers when he wanders in one day. Sparks supposedly fly, which will be helpful in gaining better access to the theater so Henry can rob the bank for real. It’s all very convenient.
But not as convenient as subsequent turns of events, which are so ludicrous it makes Reeves’ wooden acting the least of the film’s issues. Let’s just say Henry ends up with a role in the play (!), and apparently no one involved with the theater can hear a wall being knocked down. Other people want in on the caper and blackmail is eventually a concern. But that’s what happens when you casually tell people you’ve just met that you’re about to rob a bank, you know?
Buffalo, of course, is represented by snow, and the chill extends to Reeves and Farmiga’s allegedly hot couple. Not even an actress as talented and interesting as Farmiga can convince when there’s not one reason Julie (who’s a bit high-strung and irritating herself) would fall for this insipid doof of a man. Caan, meanwhile, is alternately quick-thinking and batty, which also doesn’t make a lick of sense. The real crime here is that this film was made at all.