Dummy is about Steven (Adrien Brody), a shy socially awkward almost 30-year-old man who gets fired from his job and decides to pursue his dream of becoming a professional ventriloquist. He uses his dummy to help deal with problems involving his family, friends, and love life.
Directed by: Greg Pritikin
Written by: Greg Pritikin
Starring: Adrien Brody, Milla Jovovich, Illeana Douglas
Rated: R (Though I’m not sure why. There are a couple of F-bombs, but it’s not a dirty movie at all.)
So…Does Steven suffer from social anxiety disorder? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.
Psychoanalysis — (Warning: Full Spoilers Ahead)
Steven watches an old ventriloquist movie and is inspired to buy a dummy and give it a try himself.
So you can speak… Why aren’t you speaking?
He is shy to speak with his dummy at first, even alone in his bedroom.
I also feel shy by myself—sometimes afraid to talk out loud even if no one can hear me.
The next morning at breakfast, Steve tries to tell his family he’s quitting his job, but they are so loud, and he speaks so softly, that they don’t hear him.
I can relate to this, as I sometimes speak so low that others can’t hear me. I also find it difficult to speak over other people when they are talking. Especially if they are louder and more confident. Plus, when we have social anxiety, and are quiet for so long, others don’t expect us to speak, so they learn to ignore us.
After Steven quits his job, he goes to his only friend’s house, Fangora (Milla Jovovich). She is the opposite personality-wise of Steven—super extroverted. Fangora is supportive of Steven’s decision to quit his job and pursue his dream as a ventriloquist. She
buys steals for him a book on ventriloquism, but Steven is too shy to tell her that he already owns the same book.
I’ve actually had the same exact thing happen to me. I received a book as a gift and was too shy to tell the person that I already had it, so I kept the two copies. This comes from the social anxiety fear of not wanting to offend the other person. But we don’t know whether that would actually offend them—it probably wouldn’t.
Steven goes to the unemployment office to meet with his employment counselor, Lorena (Vera Famiga). He finds her attractive and is visibly nervous in the meeting. He gives one word answers to most of her questions, says “umm” a lot, and is unable to maintain eye contact. Then when Lorena asks what kind of work he’s seeking, Steven mumbles “Ventriloquism” so low that she doesn’t hear him.
In this interaction, Steven displays all the classic features of someone with social anxiety disorder. I’ve acted the exact same way so many times in the past. It was almost like looking in a mirror.
Steven goes to a class to learn ventriloquism. Then later, while driving in the car with Fangora, they see Lorena crossing the street. Steven tries to hide, not wanting her to see him.
Many times while out in public, if I saw someone I knew, I would hide to avoid having to speak to them.
Fangora realizes that Steven likes Lorena, and she takes it upon herself to visit Lorena at the unemployment office to learn more about her for Steven. Meanwhile, Steven continues practicing his ventriloquism skills with his dummy.
You know we have a lot of work to do.
You mean you have a lot of work to do. There’s nothing wrong with me. You’re the one who sucks.
Well, maybe you can help me.
I’m not sure there is any help for you.
Look, I’ve wanted to be a ventriloquist my whole life. Now, you’re gonna help me and not be so critical.
The dummy plays the role of Steven’s inner critic, voicing all the negative thoughts that he has about himself. It’s these negative thoughts, like, “there’s no helping me,” that fuel social anxiety. Steven’s line to, “not be so critical,” is good advice. We shouldn’t be so critical and negative when speaking to ourselves.
I guess I didn’t have that many friends in high school…I didn’t really have any.
What about Fangora?
When we have social anxiety, we often wallow and lament about our lack of friends and wish we had more. We fail to recognize and take for granted the relationships that we do have.
Another character from the movie worth mentioning is Steven’s grandmother. She also lives with them, but she never says a single word in the entire movie. No reason is given. It’s more of a running gag, than social anxiety related.
The dummy continues to be quite mean and critical of Steven.
Well I got news for you buddy. You’re almost 30 years old. You quit your job to buy a doll. You failed out of community college. And you live at home with your parents… You are a loser.
The dummy seems so mean and over-critical, but this is exactly the way we often speak to ourselves in our heads. We would never accept someone speaking like that out loud to someone else, so why should we accept speaking like that to ourselves.
Heidi, (Illeana Douglas) Steven’s sister, tells Fangora she became a wedding planner after giving up on her dream to be a singer.
You’re just like Steven.
What’s that supposed to mean?
Well, he’s always selling himself short, too.
Heidi didn’t think her dream of becoming a singer was realistic, so she settled for something safer. I’ve made similar compromises in the past because of my social anxiety, both in my career and otherwise. We often sell ourselves short and don’t believe that we can achieve our dreams, whether that’s overcoming social anxiety or becoming a singer or a ventriloquist. We can accomplish a lot more than we think we can, if we just get over that initial fear to try it.
Lorena calls Steven’s house to say she got him an audition for a talent agent. Steven freezes on the phone, and she thinks he’s not there.
I’ve had the same thing happen to me on the telephone countless times. I’d pause for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, and the other person would think I hung up or that they lost the connection.
Alright, now you gotta ask her out.
Steven, she’s calling you at home.
She’s my employment counselor. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?
Bullshit. Okay, you always do this. You chicken out. You know, you got balls, Steven. You gotta use them.
Fangora may be a little over the top, but she helps push Steven out of his comfort zone. Sometimes it helps to have someone else give us that push, rather than forcing ourselves to face our fears.
Fangora drags Steven to Lorena’s house in the middle of the night to leave a note for her. Steven thinks its a bad idea, but he is too shy to stand up to her.
You don’t win a girl by sitting on your ass. You gotta take action.
But isn’t this stalking?
I find it difficult to stand up to others, especially over-confident extroverted people like Fangora. I’ve done some dumb things with others in the past–that I knew were bad ideas at the time–because I was too afraid to speak up to them.
Steven leaves flowers on Lorena’s porch, and Fangora spray paints a love message on her front door. Lorena calls the police and gets a restraining order against Steven. He blames Fangora, who gets upset, and they have a falling out.
Fangora really got me in a mess.
Bullshit. Who told you to listen to her?
Well, she can be very pushy, you know.
Steven, there’s no one to blame but yourself. You’re an idiot. I mean how stupid can you be.
Steven’s dummy is a bit harsh, but he’s right. We can’t blame others for our actions or inactions, just because we were too afraid to stand up to them.
Steven films a video apology for Lorena, with his dummy, explaining what happened. At the end of the video, he asks her out on a date. Lorena finds it sweet and agrees.
So you always meet your stalkers for coffee?
That’s very funny…very funny.
On the coffee date, Steven has much more confidence when speaking through his dummy than his first meeting with Lorena. He is able to tell jokes and look her in the eye. Her focus is on the dummy, so Steven feels less pressure and is able to relax.
I’m sorry. I mean I should have known better, but I don’t—I don’t know much when it comes to girls.
He ain’t lying.
I don’t believe it. You seem so confident on the video.
That was all me, toots.
Practicing ventriloquism might actually help in overcoming social anxiety. With the spotlight on the dummy, instead of ourselves, it may help us to be ourselves. Also, if we use the dummy as our inner critic, and voice our negative thoughts, it may help us disconnect from those thoughts. Like Lorena tells Steven, we may then realize that many of the negative thoughts we have about ourselves are not true at all.
I think it’s great that you live with your folks.
You don’t think it’s suspicious?
What do you mean?
You know, a guy my age living at home.
No…People used to live at home with their parents all the time until they were married.
I used to feel ashamed to tell people I was still living at home with my parents, for fear that they would think I was a loser or a creep. But as Lorena shows Steven, that is just another untrue negative thought we have, which further fuels our social anxiety. We can’t know what others are thinking, so we need to stop projecting that they are thinking negative thoughts about us.
Steven doesn’t have his dummy for the second half of the date. So when he attempts to invite Lorena to his parents house for a dinner date, he looks and sounds nervous again. He stutters his words and looks away while he speaks. He has low confidence again without the dummy, but she accepts the date, regardless.
STEVEN (to his Dummy)
You really need to be more supportive. I’m very nervous.
Steven still needs his Dummy to feel confident. He brings it to dinner, and Lorena brings her daughter.
Lorena and Steven’s family aren’t shy like him, but they do display some social anxiety in different ways. Lorena is afraid to tell Steven’s mother that the wine is bad. Then Steven’s mother and sister beat around the bush to find out about Lorena’s daughter’s father, but they are afraid to directly ask her about it.
After dinner Steven asks Lorena to go see the fireworks on the 4th of July. But he sounds very nervous, saying “umm” a lot and breathing heavy. He’s so nervous, expecting her to reject him, that he doesn’t even hear her say yes.
I mean, I—I thought that, uh, you know—I mean, you don’t have to, but…if its not a big deal, like maybe it might be nice.
I said ok. I’d love to.
Oh really?… Wow…Ok.
Part of why we feel social anxiety is that we believe others will reject us before we even ask. Often times, that fear prevents us from asking at all. We never get the chance to realize that they would say yes.
Fangora steals a John Philip Sousa c.d. for Steven to play for Lorena during his date, thinking it is romantic music.
Chicks dig it.
Isn’t he the guy that does all the marches and stuff?
No. It’s—uh—I found it in the classical music section. It’s fucking classical.
I’ve been in many similar situations where I knew the other person was wrong, but I was afraid to correct them. Steven didn’t want to offend Fangora, for fear of making a fool of her. But in not saying anything, he ends up making a fool of both Fangora and himself.
Steven plays the marching music for Lorena, and they sit on the couch silently listening as the dummy watches. Lorena gets weirded out, ends the date, and dumps Steven.
I have a daughter, Steven. You have a dummy.
Lorena says Steven is so nice, but she’s just not ready.
It’s not you, it’s me.
Steven feels hurt, but he respects her wishes.
Sometimes an effect of social anxiety is being too respectful of others. Lorena clearly still liked Steven, but he took her word at face value, not wanting to upset her any further by trying to fight for their relationship.
You made a total mess of the situation.
I don’t know what I did wrong. I’m just not good at this sort of thing.
Listen, Steven. You had a beautiful girl here. She’s dying to be kissed, and all you want to do is play with a doll.
But you’re not a doll, you’re…you’re a dummy.
No, you’re a dummy! Now cut the bullshit! Who do you think I am? Goddamn Pinnochio? I’m a hunk of wood! A hunk of wood!… Oh my God, I can’t believe I just said that… It’s true. As painful as it is to admit, I am a piece of wood.
You’re more than that.
Steven’s speaking about the dummy, but he might as well be speaking about himself. Just as the dummy is more than a piece of wood, Steven is more than his social anxiety. So are we. But Steven doesn’t quite realize that yet.
Steven decides to quit ventriloquism, and he returns his dummy to the shop. Then, the climax of the film takes place at a wedding that Heidi has planned. She has a nervous breakdown when everything goes wrong. Steven decides to help her by showing up with his dummy to fill in for the magician.
I just want to die.
Don’t say that. You need to follow your bliss.
Wow Joseph Campbell, you plagiarizer.
You’re funny, you know. I didn’t know that. You’re funny… You’re really talented. Don’t sell yourself short.
Heidi has been living with Steven all his life, but she never truly knew him because he was afraid to be himself, even in front of her. I’ve had similar experiences with my sisters. Steven needed the dummy to help break out of his shell, but we can do the same on our own.
Heidi’s crazy ex-boyfriend, Michael (Jared Harris), shows up at the wedding, begging her to take him back. She refuses, so then he forces her at gunpoint to take him back. Lorena then shows up, and we learn Michael is an ex of hers as well. Steven finds the bravery to use his ventriloquism skills to speak with his mouth closed and make it sound like the police are behind Michael. Steven then tackles him and fights for control of the gun—which turns out to only be a stage prop. Finally, Steven punches Michael out.
That was pretty brave.
Steven and Lorena stare at each other, then she kisses him on the cheek and walks away. Steven looks regretful.
STEVEN (in Dummy voice)
You should have kissed her, idiot.
Don’t rub it in.
I once found myself in a similar situation where I sensed that a girl wanted me to kiss her, but I was too shy to, and I regretted it after.
Back inside at the wedding party, Heidi “follows her bliss” and sings. Steven leaves his dummy at the table and gets up to dance with Lorena. He finally finds the courage to kiss her on the lips.
Steven didn’t give up after his initial mistake where he missed his chance to kiss Lorena. He kept at it, tried again, and succeeded. We can do the same. Just because we “missed our chance” (if there even is such a thing) that doesn’t mean we can’t try again. In the end, by kissing Lorena, Steven proves that he can be confident, even without his dummy. The confidence he felt with the dummy was in him all along.
Reviewing the Reviewers:
Rotten Tomatoes: 70% Critics – 74% Audience
“[Adrien Brody] plays one of those only-in-the-movies losers who is such a dimly uptight, shambling putz that he’s a defanged Norman Bates cartoon; no actor could have convincingly embodied him…even the dummy is a loser.”
Actually, Steven is not an “only-in-the-movies loser.” There are people like that in the real world—for instance, me—and Brody did a fantastic job of portraying a shy introverted character. I’m sorry we can’t all be charismatic winners like you, Mr. Gleiberman. To compare Brody’s character to Norman Bates (a “Psycho” serial killer) just because he is shy and awkward is borderline offensive.
Overall, I enjoyed Dummy as a film. It was broadly funny at times, but also dramatic with deeper themes. I was particularly impressed by Adrien Brody’s performance of a shy introverted character with social anxiety. He reminded me of myself with his behavior, mannerisms, and way of nervously speaking to others. The film didn’t mock Steven by making him a caricature of a weird loner type. It portrayed him as more of a complete character. Steven was shy and awkward, but he was also sweet and good-hearted.
The main theme of the film is to never give up on your dreams. For Steven, it was to become a ventriloquist. Heidi: a singer. Fangora: to make it big with her punk rock band. Steven also had another dream: to overcome his self-doubt and shyness and win Lorena’s heart. He stuck with that goal through the hard times, and he eventually won her over.
Steven didn’t undergo a wild transformation where he was suddenly a super-confident extrovert by the end of the movie. It was a subtle shift, where he remained his sweet, shy, awkward self, but he overcame his social anxiety to the degree that he was able to be himself with Lorena. I think a small shift like that is something we can all aspire to and actually achieve.
Dummy as a film: 7.5/10
Dummy as a portrayal of social anxiety: 10/10