The right word, for dummies
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, April 22, 2011
Lady Gaga probably wasn’t thinking of ventriloquists when she wrote the pop anthem “Born This Way,” but the song’s lyrics often came to mind while watching “Dumbstruck.”
The overriding message of Mark Goffman’s pleasantly quirky documentary about ventriloquism is that “vents” — a clever nickname adopted by those who admit they “talk to themselves and play with dolls for a living” — were summoned to this strange form of entertainment at the earliest age. They’ve always known they’d be ventriloquists and have accepted that a life without a pint-sized, wooden partner wouldn’t be worth living. To that end, “Dumbstruck” is a documentary tailor-made for dummies and those who love them dearly.
Borrowing the inquisitive structure of a Christopher Guest mock-umentary (yet wisely removing the stinging sarcasm), Goffman descends on the 31st annual Vent Haven Convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky. — a gathering for puppet-crazy ventriloquists of all shapes, sizes and skill levels. He argues that ventriloquism is a legitimate branch of show business, then profiles five individuals who are trying to make a little money without moving their lips.
Each character comes with a colorful back story. Kim is a former beauty pageant contestant who trades her swimsuit and high heels for a big-haired, big-breasted diva puppet. Longtime ventriloquist Dan finds success performing on cruise ships, which we’re told is “the latter day Las Vegas” and the goal of many puppeteers. Wilma, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-5-inch social outcast who takes to ventriloquism after her jaw had to be wired shut following a street brawl.
And then there’s Terry Fator, whose meteoric rise through the ventriloquism ranks is the stuff of legend. A contestant on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” Fator initially blew celebrity judge David Hasselhoff out of his chair with a soulful rendition of Etta James’s “At Last” sung through the floppy puppet perched on Terry’s right hand.
But “The Hoff” wasn’t the only one impressed that evening. Fator went on to win the 2007 “Talent” competition, earning him a $1 million prize and a high-profile performance slot in a Las Vegas hotel and casino. Fator wouldn’t stop there. He eventually conquered the Strip with his ventriloquism act, signing a five-year, $100 million deal with the Mirage that made him the highest-paid act in Las Vegas history.
“Dumbstruck” could have focused solely on Fator, but finds poignant balance by reminding us that Terry’s journey is the exception, not the rule. Goffman’s other subjects struggle mightily as they try to mirror Fator’s success, and our hearts break with each discouraging failure. “Dumbstruck” keeps a handful of emotional tricks up its sleeve, even as it confirms the tough truths we may have suspected about ventriloquists — that they’re lonely, unstable, shy and socially challenged people who need the help of an artificial friend if they’re ever going to learn to stand up for themselves.
Contains brief suggestive humor.