Dodgeball Dazzles Dimly

Birmingham Weekly | June 21, 2004
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, the new Vince Vaughn/Ben Stiller underdog comedy about, well, the game of dodgeball, is so shortbussedly dumb that it borders on genius. Sloppy, shoddily constructed, so limp at times that a year’s supply of Viagra couldn’t stiffen it up, the movie — more or less the first effort of writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber — plays like a season’s worth of America’s Funniest Home Videos as hosted by an aggro, way-macho Ben Stiller character. Meaning: Lots of testicular injuries and oddball verbal tics are on the menu, along with some of the more interesting facial hair I’ve seen onscreen since Stiller and Vaughn mined ’70s yucks in Starsky and Hutch. Meaning: Either you’re in, or you isn’t, and all the explaining in the world’s not going to be enough to talk you into seeing something so brilliantly dumb as this movie is if you aren’t already predisposed to do so.

Three or so heavily punctuated sentences are enough to do away with the movie’s plot, which for sanity’s sake is best not talked about. Vaughn plays Peter La Fleur, the shabby, slackerish owner of Average Joe’s, a gym-like attraction for a collection of stray losers, which is one month (or $50,000) away from closing because La Fleur has defaulted (or something) on his mortgage. Stiller plays White Goodman, the bulked-up, mustachioed owner of the super-sized Globo Gym; Goodman also holds the title (or something) to Average Joe’s and plans to pave it over when the month is up. One thing leads to another (and I can’t believe I’m writing this; my fingers feel ashamed) and the motley crew of Average Joe’s – a group that includes a stone loser (Stephen Root) with a mail-order bride, and a guy who believes he’s a pirate, and a couple of mostly anonymous nebbishes – decide that they can raise the required dough by playing in and of course winning the world championship of dodgeball in Las Vegas. But enough of that. On to the funny.

If there’s one especially weak link in the movie, it’s Vaughn. Odd, because he’s often the saving grace of not-good movies, an aggressive comic spirit unafraid of being unlikable. He’s not very likable here, which on one hand is great — you don’t really mind when he gets nailed by a ball, and he gets nailed a lot — and on the other hand is not-so; he’s a bland, washed-out brand of unlikable, an unenlightened straight man with wiseguy pretensions. More succinctly, he’s a real bore, and the sense of superiority he exudes is enough to make you root for the movie’s bad guy. Stiller, though, is another story. Pumped-up, full-on, covered in muscles, hair stiffened into a feather that’s forever threatening to take flight (to a Bryan Adams concert maybe), he’s unrepentantly hungry for carpet, for walls, for any scenery he comes across. White Goodman is immensely self-satisfied and totally on-guard all at the same time; the too-tall henchmen he surrounds himself with and the inflatable codpiece he’s equipped with complete the picture painted by his muscles and the breast-baring unitard that is his work uniform.

Thurber (the writer and director, remember?) throws so many jokes out, tosses so many accomplished character actors into the mix that it’s almost easy to forgive the movie its flaws: Rip Torn as Patches O’Houlihan, wheelchair-bound one-time dodgeball wunderkind? Gary Cole as Cotton McKnight, the dodgeball announcer at ESPN Ocho (the clearinghouse for all almost-sports; look for the riding lawnmowers tearing up a dirt track/waterskiing squirrels/belt-fightering montage that introduces the channel’s dodgeball coverage)? Jason Bateman as McKnight’s co-host, a tattooed extreme sports doof who masters in the art of obvious commentary? Stephen Root as anybody? A treasure chest marked deus ex machina that appears just before the credits roll? That such comic riches are put to such limited uses (Torn, especially, is written off in an amateurish manner) is a little disheartening but in a culture of lowered expectations — the one that inspired me to say, before the movie the started, that I hoped it wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve ever seen — to be just a little disheartened is almost as good as being totally fulfilled.

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