Snap judgments are inevitable and plentiful when considering the ventriloquist: they're not talented enough to be real performers, they're subconsciously addressing personal issues through puppetry and they're maladjusted weirdoes. In Dumbstruck, television writer turned documentary director Mark Goffman dispels the first and doesn't try hard enough on the second. As for the third, he uses a surprisingly soft touch to convey that ventriloquists are no more eccentric or screwed up than the rest of us. He follows five vents (as they're colloquially called) over a two year period. The resulting distillation is brisk, light and engaging with none of the cheap shots that usually accompany any discussion of ventriloquism. If anything, Goffman is too gentle, refusing to pursue his charges into their darker corners. This less offbeat, more straightforward approach will undercut box office results. Dedication and love of the craft will only net so much coin when talking about mimes, clowns and ventriloquists.
Unlike similar documentaries focusing on people consumed by a narrow interest (including Wordplay, Spellbound and Darkon), most of those profiled in Dumbstruck aren't doing ventriloquism for fun; this is their career. They are compelled to grind out a living in a profession with few big ticket opportunities. Goffman's subjects are well-chosen and represent all rungs of the vent ladder. The most compelling is Wilma Swartz: 6-feet, 5-inches of gawkiness and melancholy. With the exception of one nephew, her family disapproves of her profession so intensely that they've disowned her. Long suffering from an undisclosed medical condition, Wilma considers the vent community her only family, which comes in handy when she's threatened with eviction from her home. Interviews reveal that Wilma taught herself ventriloquism after her mouth was temporarily wired shut, one of the more unique justifications for pursuing an art. Overall though, Goffman could have been less coy about why his subjects were drawn to ventriloquism and, sometimes equally telling, why they speak through a particular puppet. Of all the cloth and plastic alter egos he could have chosen, 13-year-old Dylan Burdette tries to launch his career with an opinionated African-American male, a personae far removed from the shy youngster from Lookout Farm, KY.
Dumbstruck hits notes of universality as the vents struggle to find a balance between career and family. Former beauty queen Kim Yeager and her puppet performed 482 shows in one year, mostly school safety assemblies. She is 31-years-old and her frustrated mother would prefer she get married rather than land her dream job performing on a cruise ship. As it turns out, cruise ship bookings are top of the heap for a ventriloquist. It's a gig that requires extended stays away from home, the very problem that threatens the marriage of Dan Horn, a vent good enough to have appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Like most careerists, especially those with fringe pursuits, still-struggling vents are inspired by peer success. Here, Goffman hits the jackpot with Terry Fator. In 2007, the 42-year-old Texas native improbably won the TV competition show America's Got Talent after voice-throwing a jaw-droppingly good rendition of Etta James's torch classic At Last. The next year, Fator would sign a five-year, $100 million deal to perform at the Mirage in Las Vegas. If Dumbstruck has a hero, it's Fator, and not only because he's the profession's most successful practitioner. He exists in a near-constant state of humbleness and surprise at his good fortune and his dedication to the vents he left behind is wonderful. Cameras roll as Fator plays a homecoming show in Corsicana, Texas (the fruitcake capital of the world) and returns, donation in hand, to the annual Vent Haven convention that Goffman uses to bookend his tale.
Goffman, whose TV credits include The West Wing and Law and Order: SVU, understandably avoids professional assessments of the five featured vents and the triggers that drove them to ventriloquism. "Being shy is not an uncommon trait in ventriloquists" is about as clinical as the movie gets. That said, the director leaves potentially dramatic material on the table. There's something curious about people drawn to a craft that allows them to hide behind an alternate personality or use an alternate personality to express something they themselves cannot. Most of the five vents have, at the very least, mild parental issues that were either a cause or the result of their interest in ventriloquism. The most heartbreaking is Swartz, whose tale of lost family is so woeful it begs for beefing up. Instead of shooting for real insight, the smoothly-edited doc maintains a pleasant course, as troubled artists continually navigate between compromise and concession. One's respect for ventriloquism may not change after seeing Dumbstruck, but respect must be paid to those who've dedicated their lives to a vocation many find childish and illegitimate.
Distributor: Truly Indie
Director/Screenwriter: Mark Goffman
Producer: Lindsay Goffman
Rating: PG for brief, suggestive humor.
Running Time: 84 mins.
Release date: April 15 NY