Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/06/04 19:59:09

"Ben Stiller, funny again. 'Bout time."
3 stars (Just Average)

A brief list of some things that are funny: Mustaches. Big hair. Pirates. Obscure sports. Sports movie clichés. Big men with girls’ names. Hank Azaria with a dopey accent. Stephen Root in glasses. Rip Torn swearing. “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” has all of these and more.

Oh, the movie’s not too bright, but I couldn’t stop laughing, and that’s the point, right? And hey, finally a Ben Stiller comedy that doesn’t blow chow, which is all we ever wanted.

Here’s where the movie fails, just to get it out of the way. It wants to be a parody of sports dramas, but it also wants to stay in a comfort zone. It piles on the silliness yet keeps the story grounded in reality, as not to be too silly. The plot, which involves rival gyms competing in a national dodgeball championship, deserves a wild universe in which dodgeball is the top sport in the country, kinda like “BASEketball” did (yes, I really did like that movie, now stop asking). Instead, dodgeball, despite being presented as a sport in which its fans and athletes go full-out big time, is limited to an “obscure” sport, if only to make the movie’s premise sound realistic to skeptical viewers.

In leaving his story in our own universe, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (a name too serious for comedy?) sloppily blurs the line between spoof and just another bland sports comedy. It’s a parody that plays it too safe with plot and character. As a result, it’s too uneven - wild satire here, bizarre unreality here, normal guy stuff there. The film feels less than what it could have been had it unleashed the silliness.

That said, it’s still a major hoot. Stiller, as a goofball caricature of a fitness guru, makes a great ignoramus, and despite his being stuck in a one-joke character (look, he’s so stupid!), Stiller gives enough energy to the role that he makes it work. Torn, meanwhile, soaks up most of the good lines as cranky dodgeball legend Patches O’Houlihan (on his unconventional training methods: “If you can dodge traffic, you can dodge a ball”); here’s an actor who realizes how much fun it can be just to sit back and let the naughty words fly.

The dialogue, in fact, is where the movie crackles best. Where Thurber misses in storyline and tone, he hits with great quotables. Here’s a movie that describes the final game as “a David and Goliath story truer than the Bible itself.” Here’s a movie that asks Vince Vaughn to look Christine Taylor right in the eye and tell her, with a straight face, that it’s “time to put your mouth where our balls are.” Here’s a movie that reminds us about the five D’s of dodgeball: “dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge.”

Oh, there are some fun sight gags and a few laughs from the unpredictable turn of events, but “Dodgeball” is at its core all about the verbal comedy. Why else hire Vaughn, who can handle a slick one-liner with the best of ’em, or Root, who makes anything funny with the right nerdish delivery? Even when the movie depends on goofy cameos for a quick chuckle, the script’s always right there with an extra kicker. (I still giggle at the memory of Vaughn’s “Thank you, Chuck Norris,” and the bit with Lance Armstrong is far sharper than it needed to be, lucky for us.) And when an entire character is built around the premise that he thinks he’s a pirate, well, it’s not just a visual gag; the great Alan Tudyk gets plenty of mileage from every “yeargh.”

So while “Dodgeball” isn’t nearly as daring as it should have been, the comedy still sells. It’s a fun little nugget of a movie that’s good for constant laughs, and as I said before, isn’t that the point?

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