Movie Review: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
By Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
The lameness of recent Ben Stiller comedies seems proportional to the amount he mugs in them - and he mugs a ton in "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," his fourth stinker of 2004.
Stiller, who established himself as one of the savviest comedic actors in "Flirting with Disaster," "There's Something About Mary" and "Meet the Parents," continues to burn through his goodwill faster than you can say "Along Came Polly," "Starsky and Hutch," "Envy" and "Dodgeball."
Stiller, a "Dodgeball" producer, is revealing an unfortunate craving for the cheese of his childhood. "Starsky and Hutch" offered some laughs, but as a spoof it was pointless. "Dodgeball" returns Stiller to those gym days of dodging red balls whipped at your head, but once you get beyond nostalgia for dodging red balls whipped at your head, there's little here.
Stiller plays a fitness fascist named White Goodman who runs a slick gym with the motto "We're better than you, and we know it." White's appearance all but screams, "Look at me, I'm funny!" He's got a feathered, blonde-streaked mane and handlebar mustache, and he wears skin-tight gymwear and an air pump in his crotch.
He also talks with a silly, gravelly voice, and his eyes bug out a lot. Even if this shtick might have worked on "Saturday Night Live," where Stiller briefly toiled, it's indigestible over a feature-length film.
The movie isn't more than an expanded sketch, either. White is trying to take over the dilapidated gym Average Joe, run by regular-guy owner Peter LaFleur (a laid-back Vince Vaughn), who must raise $50,000 in 30 days. Guess what the prize money is for the national dodgeball championship in Las Vegas?
Peter's gym-mates make up a "Bad News Bears"-level dodgeball team, including a high-school nerd (Justin Long), a middle-aged lump who reads Obscure Sports Quarterly (Stephen Root) and a guy who dresses like a pirate and says little more than "Garrrrrrrr!" (Alan Tudyk). They're conceived as lovable losers without the lovable part being earned, while the usually sharp-edged Vaughn plays kindly straight man.
Christine Taylor (Stiller's wife) adds some spunk as a bank official/ball-slinger, but "Dodgeball" only comes alive when Rip Torn arrives as Patches O'Houlihan, an aged coach in a wheelchair who trains this crew by putting to practice such nuggets as "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball" and "If you can dodge traffic, you can dodge a ball."
When Torn is on screen, the movie has a lunatic energy that it sorely lacks otherwise. If nothing else, his scenes suggest a helpful slapstick rule: People getting brained by wrenches is funnier than people getting brained by rubber balls.
There aren't a lot of interesting ways to film dodgeball action, or if there are, first-time writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber hasn't found them. Few sports-movie climaxes are lamer than the "Dodgeball" tournament scenes, which consist of players getting hit in the back, on the leg, and so on.
Shouldn't certain players become known for certain skills, like uncanny aim or bullet velocity or the ability to catch everything in sight? These folks just look like overgrown fifth-graders heaving, ducking and running. Fifth-graders also could have written the fat and gay jokes.
Then there are the cameos, and I'm sorry: If you must include William Shatner and David Hasselhoff, then the game's already lost.
"DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story"
Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber; photographed by Jerzy Zielinski; edited by Alan Baumgarten; production designed by Maher Ahmad; music by Theodore Shapiro; produced by Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday, June 18. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG-13 (rude and sexual humor, language).
Peter La Fleur - Vince Vaughn
Kate Veatch - Christine Taylor
White Goodman - Ben Stiller
Patches O'Houlihan - Rip Torn
Justin - Justin Long
Gordon - Stephen Root