In case you hadn't heard, the game of dodgeball is sweeping the nation. That's right, the old gym sport of chucking rubber balls at opponents until you're the last man standing. Any doubts you may have are understandable, but while most schools have banned the game in the last ten years (supposedly because kids found it too demeaning and dangerous), dodgeball leagues and tournaments are reportedly cropping up across the country. There's a National Amatetur Dodgeball Association and an annual world championship. There's also a new weekly television show promoting the sport on the Game Show Network.
Now it's a Ben Stiller movie of the month. Well, not completely Stiller's; he's just one of the cast members in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, till now known as the creator of Reebok's funny Terry Tate, Office Linebacker commercials. And those Tate spots make Thurber the ideal man to helm a silly sports comedy about people getting whacked in the head with balls, wrenches, and other assorted items.
Vince Vaughn (Starsky & Hutch, Old School) gets top billing as Pete Le Fleur, a likeable-but-lazy blue-collar slob who owns and operates small-time Average Joe's Gym. It's the kind of place situated in an old warehouse with out-of-date equipment, populated by losers and misfits that La Fleur keeps around more as friends than customers. Trouble brews when fitness rival White Goodman (Stiller) buys out Average Joe's mortgage in order to tear it down and build a parking garage for his own Globo Gym. That leaves Le Fleur and his pals just 30 days to come up with $50,000 to save the gym from foreclosure. One of the guys, Gordon (Stephen Root of Office Space), finds an ad for the American Dodgeball Tournament, with a grand prize of … yep, you guessed it.
Familiar story, right? The Average Joes are a bunch of scrawny weaklings and clumsy oafs-one of whom believes he's a pirate. Do you think these guys have a chance? Hmm, maybe they'll get some help from Goodman's legal rep, Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor of Zoolander), who conveniently loathes Goodman, seems warm to Le Fleur, and happens to have a strong throwing arm from playing softball. Familiar and predictable.
Hardly sophisticated high-brow comedy—it's called Dodgeball, after all. Fortunately, it's not really the sort of lowest common denominator scatological comedy that's so prevalent either. Dodgeball is a throwback to the simplistic and spirited underdog sports films of the last 25 years, like Caddyshack, Major League, The Bad News Bears, and Happy Gilmore—lovable losers playing for high stakes against the rich, powerful jerks. Though often crude and rude, this movie also owes much to the good old-fashioned slapstick of The Three Stooges (did I mention that people are repeatedly hit by objects in the movie?) and the cultural satire of The Simpsons; the line "Nobody makes me bleed my own blood!" originated on the TV hit more than ten years ago, and Hank Azaria even makes a guest appearance during a funny homage to the educational films of the '50s.
Still, Dodgeball isn't as good as the films and programs that obviously inspired it. The casting is adequate, not necessarily memorable. Vaughn, for example, satisfactorily delivers the charming sarcasm and inspiring pep talks, but he's no Bill Murray or Chevy Chase, two comedic actors who have played this kind of role so much better before. Most of the others are just caricatures of stock characters—well played and expected, but still people we've seen before in other movies. Rip Torn is the wise-but-crazy coach and mentor. Taylor is the sympathetic and pretty love interest. Joel Moore is the geek, Justin Long the wuss. I'm still not sure what to make of Alan Tudyk's role of Steve the Pirate; it smacks of a desperate attempt to be funny, and at times, it is.
In that sense, maybe this is Stiller's movie after all—he steals the screen every time he's on it. White Goodman is one of his craziest creations, a hilariously dim-witted and mean-spirited jock that doesn't realize how pathetic he really is. It's a combination of Stiller's stupidity from Zoolander and temper from Mystery Men. Playing off of Vaughn's deadpan straight guy schtick, Stiller's lack of height and exaggerated hair are used for laughs, but it's his nonsensical one-liners that take his character over the top. Most of that stems from his delivery—imagine an egotistical studmuffin delivering the stupidest pick-up lines you've ever heard, and you've got White Goodman. Younger viewers will undoubtedly be quoting White's silly one-liners for some time. There's also something fun about seeing Stiller interact with Taylor, his real-life wife, reacting with disgust to his chauvinistic flirtations.
Though Dodgeball may cover familiar ground, the laughs are plentiful for the first two thirds of the film. And there are some terrific celebrity cameos. Some are pointless-but-funny, but the one related to Germany's dodgeball team is absolutely hysterical. Another highlight is the coverage by ESPN 8 ("The Ocho"), featuring Gary Cole with the play-by-play and Jason Bateman providing color commentary that suggests his character has been hit in the head with one dodgeball too many. Unfortunately, the laughs peter out toward the end when the jokes begin to repeat and the story succumbs to the predictable conventions of the genre. At least the dodgeball matches are well staged and take some slightly unpredictable twists along the way.
Does it work as a comedy? Depends on your sense of humor—and your sensitivities to crude humor. It begins as a mostly harmless comedy, relying more on slapstick and "guy humor" without getting too gross. But the film later pushes the envelope more and more, going from a soft PG-13 to a borderline R. The closing "gag" will indeed make many gag, derailing an otherwise funny film. Suffice to say, this is not a movie for those who felt Shrek 2's humor was too "adult." Fans of Caddyshack, however, will feel right at home.
It's unfortunate that a movie so perfectly shaped for a broader, family-friendly audience succumbs to some very crude jokes. This is a movie for immature adults, not kids. It is also funnier than most people might expect, and its likely to start building grassroots support. Regardless of the success or failure of dodgeball's current revival, I think Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story will become one of the summer's sleeper hits.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What do we play or compete for in sports (and in life)? Is "the game of life" simply a matter of winning or losing? Honor? Something else?
- What are team leaders' responsibilities to their teammates? What commitment do teammates have to each other, as well as their team leaders?
- How do you define offensive humor? What's the line between that which is simply an exaggerated reflection of real life and that which taints our culture? When is it simply fun and when is it problematic?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Dodgeball begins as a mostly harmless comedy, but pushes the envelope as it progresses. The language starts with relatively innocent "guy jokes," but later deteriorates into occasional big-league profanity. At one point, after a uniform mix-up, the good guys' team is forced to play in S&M costumes. Worse, in the film's final scene, the female lead kisses another woman fully on the lips, proudly announcing that she's bisexual. Too bad, because these things derail an otherwise hilarious film—though it's definitely not one for the kids.
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 06/24/04
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber follows the pattern of classic underdog movies and borrows the tone of Ben Stiller's manic Zoolander in his new film Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, this week's box office champ.
The story follows the regulars at a local workout gym called Average Joe's, which has to come up with $50,000 to keep their gym when it is threatened by a supergym called Globo Gym. These oppressed everymen (Vince Vaughn, Alan Tudyk, Stephen Root, and others) decide their only hope is to enter a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas, where the reward is exactly the amount they need. Just in time, they run into a world-famous dodgeball coach (Rip Torn, spewing foul punchlines) who agrees to help them train. But when Globo Gym's strutting, chauvinistic, egomaniacal owner (Ben Stiller) gets wind of their plan, he and his musclebound cronies enter the tournament themselves.
Sound ludicrous? It is. In fact, it's an outrageous send-up of professional sports broadcasts, bad '70s movies and sports flick clichés. As in Zoolander, Stiller's hilarious parody of the fashion industry, the film is crowded with surprising cameos and music-video-style montages that keep things moving at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, where comedy brilliance outweighed locker-room humor in that movie, Dodgeball fires off foul punchlines by the dozens. Viewers troubled by such sophomoric behavior will spend the movie dodging dumb jokes, rewarded by only a few high points. Moviegoers would fare better staying home and looking for a better option on video.
My review is at Looking Closer.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Dodgeball is a throwback to the simplistic and spirited underdog sports films of the last 25 years, like Caddyshack, Major League, The Bad News Bears, and Happy Gilmore—lovable losers playing for high stakes against the rich, powerful jerks. Though often crude and rude, this movie also owes much to the good old-fashioned slapstick of The Three Stooges … and the cultural satire of The Simpsons."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Yes, the humor is silly, sexual, and politically incorrect—sometimes even offensive—but because of a talented, earnest cast it often works despite its crudeness or mean-spiritedness. And though it is very funny, it is also effectively inspirational." He adds, "Parents should know that this PG-13 film is very sexual and physical in its humor. It is not a film for children."
But David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is not so willing to give the film any compliments. He says it's "full of forced, crass humor. Its love-yourself-for-who-you-are message is weighed down by the film's preponderance of puerility including jokes about lesbianism, penile pumps, S&M leatherwear and, of course, running sight gags of people getting smashed in the face—or considerably lower—with spherical projectiles."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) calls it "a film that does nothing more than hurl obscene material. Just as the characters must dodge wrenches, cars and incoming red rubber balls, so moviegoers are forced to dodge two hours worth of angry verbal assaults, lowbrow humor and crude—more accurately, obscene—innuendo."
And yet, many mainstream critics are showing surprising enthusiasm for the film.
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