It always seemed to me that dodgeball must have been created by sadistic gym teachers so that they could watch with glee as the athletic kids pummel the weaker ones – and get away with it. My personal memories of playing the game mostly involve hiding in the corner as the jocks on the other side whizzed the balls as hard as they could. One memory stands out, however. There was this kid - I’ll call him Jerkface - who used to make fun of me for anything he could think of, real or imagined. One day in high school gym class we were on opposing sides. I threw the ball at him with all the might I could muster. The ball flew through the air and smacked him hard in the mouth. The force was so strong, I guess, that he fell flat on his ass. I was certain that he’d kill me later in the day, but Jerkface apparently never saw who threw it. In that moment, I think I understood the value of dodgeball; it’s a way to take out your aggression on others.
In the new comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, two rivals square off in a professional dodgeball stadium, prepared to duke it out for very high stakes. Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) owns and operates a run-down gym called Average Joe’s. It’s not a fancy place by any means, but it serves as a hangout for a loyal group of misfits who have nowhere else to go. Among them are a geeky high school student who wants to woo the head cheerleader, a guy with an Asian mail order bride, and a dude who thinks he’s a pirate. Why does he think he’s a pirate? It’s one of the more amusing jokes that the film never provides an excuse.
Peter has failed to make a tax payment and his business is now in foreclosure. Arriving in his office one day is a lawyer named Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor). She represents White Goodman (Ben Stiller), the egocentric owner of the much more upscale Globo Gym right across the street. Goodman plans to buy Average Joe’s and turn it into a parking lot. Peter would rather cut off his own arm than have the place fall into the hands of the pompous Goodman, but he probably can’t raise $50,000 in 30 days. His customers discover that they can earn that exact amount by winning a national dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas. (They learn about it by reading Obscure Sports Magazine.) Under the tutelage of a legendary dodgeball player named Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn), Peter and the Average Joe’s gang set out to win. Goodman discovers their plan and puts together his own team to take them down. Kate eventually gets so fed up with his scheming – as well as his disgusting attempts to hit on her – that she switches allegiances and joins Peter’s team.
Dodgeball has fun spoofing all the cliches of sports movies: the rivalries, the training sequences, the moment when the hero plans to give up but then gets an epiphany. The movie even makes a point of pulling out a major deus ex machina - a gratuitously convenient plot device that saves the day – and has the audacity to stamp the words “deus ex machina” on the object in question. First-time writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber effectively skewers just about everything in the generic sports movie formula, right down to the final confrontation between the hero and the nemesis.
There are a lot of big laughs in the film. I loved the character of Patches O’Houlihan, a crotchety old man who trains the players by making them run across a busy highway because “if you can dodge traffic, you can dodge a ball!” White Goodman is funny as well, as he continually demonstrates self-worship. The guy can barely string together a coherent thought, yet he constantly expresses his feeling of superiority. Even the motto of his gym – “We’re better than you and we know it” – reeks of narcissism. The dodgeball competition itself takes up the second half of the film, and it provides one big laugh after another. Average Joe’s starts to look like one of the more normal teams when paired up against the competition: lumberjacks, martial arts experts, and hip-hoppers. Gary Cole and Jason Bateman play commentators for ESPN 8, also known as “the Ocho.” Their play-by-play is often hilarious.
Watching Dodgeball, I noticed something. Just as there used to be a Rat Pack and a Brat Pack, there is now a group of actors who keep appearing on film together in different combinations. The members are Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, and the Wilson Brothers, Luke and Owen. In one combination or another, these guys have made Old School, Zoolander, Starsky & Hutch, The Royal Tenenbaums, Meet the Parents and now Dodgeball. Here is a group of talented actors whose comedic styles mesh beautifully. They are funny on their own, yet they make each other funnier with their chemistry. It happens again this time. Vaughn plays the sarcastic wisecracker to Stiller’s Jerkface. They’re terrific together and the fun they appear to be having is infectious.
Much of the movie’s humor is lowbrow and sophomoric, which is just what many of us want and expect from this crew. I can imagine some will call the picture dumb and tasteless. I can also imagine that many more will, like me, laugh pretty consistently. Not every joke in Dodgeball hits the bullseye, but more than enough of them do. On one hand, dodgeball is a violent game when you think about it. It involves pain, injury, and humiliation. On the other, it’s a rather silly game, isn’t it? Trying to hit another person with a ball? Could there be any less strategy? The fusion of violence and silliness makes dodgeball a great subject for a sports comedy, and the Vaughn/Stiller team is casting perfection.
( out of four)
One final thought: there is a very distinct noise that rubber dodgeballs make when they hit someone or something. The sound effects people on this movie got that noise exactly right, and hearing it blasting in digital surround brought a smile to my face.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is rated PG-13 for rude and sexual humor, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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