It takes smarts to conjure the perfect dummy---that's the apparent moral of this ventriloquism doc, which ultimately has more to say about artistic insecurities and a dying vaudeville trade than it does on the craftsmanship of these stage performers. Filmmaker Mark Goffman intimately charts the ordeals of five ventriloquists---three naive amateurs lacking finesse and two superstars coping with the pressures of the big leagues---offering all-access peeks into their rehearsals, auditions and home lives.
The star here is Terry Fator, who turned America's Got Talent buzz into a $100 million Las Vegas contract. (His comrades, however, can only fantasize of such fame.) There's the timid teen whose dummy serves as a tool of self-expression, and the former beauty queen who's convinced the right character will earn her a ticket out of her rural hometown; both prove remarkably unprepared for their potential big breaks. More troubling are the artists who are punished for their passions, such as a penniless nursing home performer who's served eviction papers and the traveling cruise-ship headliner who aches for his family back home.
Goffman knows how to milk these intimate scenes for dramatic flair, but his fixation on crises---foreclosures! family feuds! marital unrest!---buries his subjects' artistic revelations beneath mountains of overly hyped melodrama. Some ventriloquists win the fame game, while some remain stuck in the D-list dugout. The fact that Dumbstruck doesn't even attempt to differentiate these camps makes the film feel as if it's just talking out of the side of its mouth.
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