Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

A skinny guy gets squashed by a fat girl.  A guy in a wheelchair throws wrenches at people.  Another guy gets hit by a couple of cars.  Throw in plenty of shots to the groin, head and body, not to mention a pair of electrocuted nipples, and you’d be forgiven for thinking I was describing a Quentin Tarantino movie.
 
It’s the inevitable question that pops up after seeing Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story:  is pain funny?  Yes, it certainly can be.  Remember that scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark when Indiana Jones disposes of a blade-wielding baddie with a simple shotgun blast?  Or how about that moment in Robocop when that perp hurts his foot kicking our hero right in his metallic groin?  As with anything to do with the movies, it all comes down to context and execution, so to speak.
 
That explains partly why Dodgeball is such a disappointment.  Its endless barrage of physical gags are more painful than funny.  The other problem is its mostly predictable storyline.
 
Peter La Fleur (an uneven Vince Vaughn) is having a very bad day.  His dog wakes him up in an inappropriate manner, his utilities are about to be turned off (he’s five months behind in his payments), his car is so run down that he can only drive it for a short distance before depending on the kindness of strangers for a little extra push, and he’ll lose his business, Average Joe’s Gym, if he doesn’t pay $50000 in unpaid bills within 30 days.  When you’re lackadaisical about collecting membership fees from your misfit customers, what do you expect?
 
Speaking of which, these are some uninspired characters.  There’s Gordon (Stephen Root), an obscure sports enthusiast on his second marriage to a mail order bride who hates him; Owen (Joel Moore from Grandma’s Boy), who can’t get a date; Justin (Justin Long), the aspiring high school cheerleader desperately in love with an unattainable babe who is unsurprisingly and conveniently dating a jerk; Dwight (Chris Williams), the obligatory black guy; and Steve (Alan Tudyk from TV’s Firefly), a delusional twit who dresses and behaves like a pirate.  To say we could care less about them is redundant.  They’re walking stereotypes.
 
When Peter gathers them together to deliver the bad news, Owen suggests a car wash to raise the money.  Unfortunately, on the day of their fundraising venture, some hot babes across the street are doing their own car wash.  In bikinis.  Needless to say, it’s back to square one.
 
While commiserating over their failure, Gordon remembers something.  There was an ad in Obscure Sports Quarterly Magazine (he’s a devoted reader) promoting a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas that caught his eye.  The grand prize is $50000.  (How convenient.)  Only one problem.  None of them have played the game before nor do they know the rules.  How is this possible?  Did they all get an exemption from gym?
 
At any event, Justin steals an old instructional film from his high school which features a young Patches O’Houlihan (Hank Azaria), a legend of the sport, explaining all they need to know.  Not too long afterward, they meet the sometimes funny Rip Torn who plays the character as an old, cantankerous, wheelchair-confined sadist.  Here’s where the painful stuff takes over the movie.
 
His idea of training these sad sacks is, well, sadistic.  "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball," he says with a straight face.  Guess what happens.  Oh, and "if you can dodge a car…". 
 
Wait, there’s more.  Gordon has a problem getting in touch with his anger.  Patches slugs him in the nuts.  Speaking of balls, every character learns the hard way why the majority hated playing this barbaric game in school.
 
Meanwhile, White Goodman (a hit-and-miss Ben Stiller) is a former fattie turned successfully slimmed down businessman who runs Globo Gym right next door to Average Joe’s.  He’s constantly fighting his urge to overeat (he so loves pizza that he wants to have intercourse with it) and might be the most socially awkward bodybuilder I’ve ever seen.  If you look up "overcompensation" in the dictionary, you’ll see his picture.  To prove my point, I offer two words:  penis pump.  He also says the dumbest things.  Example:  "No one makes me bleed my own blood!  Nobody!"
 
For some perplexing reason, he wants to take over Peter’s business.  (It’s not exactly a threat to his bottom line.)  The lovely Christine Taylor plays Kate, a lawyer hired by Goodman’s bank to examine Peter’s business records and to oversee the possible transition.  There’s a funny scene where Goodman repulses her so much with his "courting" that she literally throws up a little in her mouth.  The fact that Taylor and Stiller are a happily married couple offscreen makes this all the more amusing.
 
Meanwhile, Peter’s team keeps practising with Patches for an upcoming regional qualifier.  Goodman, for his part, puts together a team of his own.  Somehow, a hidden camera strategically placed behind the eyes of his cardboard likeness finds its way into Average Joe’s.  (Hmm.)  Besides observing their hapless training sessions, Goodman realizes that Kate has a secret talent.  He soon fires her which serves two purposes:  1) It allows him the freedom to pursue her (much to her steadfast revulsion) and 2) She can now join Peter’s team.
 
It doesn’t take too much brainpower to figure out what will happen next.  Both teams will end up in the final.  (Guess who wins.)  It’ll look bleak at one point but predictably, an infraction will be belatedly spotted allowing the match to continue.  Peter and Kate, an unconvincing romantic pairing, will grow gradually closer (although there is a funny twist about that, I must admit).  Gordon will reach his boiling point.  Justin will have his chance with Amber the cheerleader.  Owen will find love.  And Goodman will gain back all that weight he lost which inspires a hilarious YouTube parody during the closing credits.
 
I can accept a predictable story with underwritten characters as long as the laughs are loud and continuous.  That’s not the case with Dodgeball.  Like Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, this movie has some outright hilarious moments.  To see a certain America’s Got Talent judge lashing out at the German dodgeball team after they’re eliminated from the tournament is the funniest moment in the movie.  There’s another great cameo involving a famous athlete, Gary Cole and the seriously underrated Jason Bateman have their moments as unlikely ESPN commentators (although we could be spared some of the grosser, and quite frankly, dumber quips), and there’s some other funny one-liners sprinkled here and there.  But many of the gags, including the other cameos, fall flat.  (Just because you can get a certain famous face to do an unbilled walk-on, that doesn’t mean you don’t give him something strong to work with.)  They’re either too painful, too mean, too stupid, too disgusting or too obvious. 
 
About the somewhat predictable ending, parts of it don’t make a lot of sense.  If a certain character makes a pivotal decision before The Big Game and then, reverses that decision only to reveal that all along he didn’t have any doubts whatsoever, why the inconsistency in the first place?  And isn’t gambling on your own team’s performance illegal?
 
Dodgeball is very much a traditional underdog story not unlike Police Academy, Revenge Of The Nerds and countless others.  It’s certainly funnier than those aforementioned disasters but that’s not saying much.  Within the first 20 minutes, you know where it’s going and you don’t care.  Vince Vaughn can be a funny actor when given good material (he has occasionally good lines here) but he lacks charm and we’re not always sure whether he actually cares for his teammates or is just humouring them.
 
Stiller and Taylor are the best performers here, even though some of the former’s dialogue would make even the Zucker Brothers wince.  It’s too bad.  When Dodgeball is funny, it can be riotously so.  When it’s not, it’s deader than The Republican Party.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
3:29 p.m.
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Published in: on October 7, 2008 at 3:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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