Dodgeball (United States, 2004)
Of course, Dodgeball isn't a true underdog anything, but that's all part of the joke. A blistering satire of feel-good sports movies, this film makes its mark via the most direct route: it lampoons by adopting the tried-and-true "straight" formula and tweaking it a little. The approach works because many sports dramas are borderline unintentional parodies with less tension than a flaccid cable; all the filmmakers of Dodgeball had to do was to follow the plot-by-numbers approach, incorporate some obviously comedic material, and toss in a huge dose of over-the-top earnestness. The resulting product offers about 90 minutes of laughter (although the movie runs out of steam during its final third).
Most of us remember dodge ball - the scourge of gym students around the country. A "sport" designed by sadists to allow the strong to prey upon the weak, it's the nightmare of every kid with more brains than brawn. Recently, dodgeball has been banned in some schools on the grounds that it's too dangerous and breeds aggression. So what could represent a more ludicrous event for a feel-good sports underdog movie? And that's the point. Besides, nearly every other sport has been taken.
The showdown that Dodgeball builds to is the ultimate David/Goliath battle, with the "Average Joe's Gym" team facing the "Globo Gym" pros. And it's all being televised on ESPN 8 ("The Ocho"). On the one side, we have straight-shooting Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn), who's competing to get the $50,000 that will keep the bank from foreclosing on his gym. He is joined by five of his clients, an attractive ex-bank employee (Christine Taylor), and legendary dodgeball player-turned-coach, Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn). On the other side is a group of mean monsters assembled by Globo tycoon White Goodman (Ben Stiller), who wants to acquire Average Joe's so he can tear it down and erect a parking garage. No points for guessing who wins, who gets kissed, or whose luck runs out.
Although Dodgeball is built on a foundation of satire, there's plenty of conventional humor, varying from the not-too-silly to the absolutely ridiculous. Some of the one-off gags, such as White pumping himself up in preparation for an encounter with a woman, are hilarious. Others lose their effect through repetition - seeing someone get nailed by a volley of hard-thrown balls is only funny the first time or two. In fact, White's character is an example how overexposure dulls the edge of comedy. This sleazy Fonzie is amusing for a while, but, after about an hour, he becomes a bore. There's something to be said for limiting the screen time of a cartoon villain.
Once again, Vince Vaughn proves unable to hold his own in talented company, even though his role simply requires that he play the straight guy. He's straight, all right - and stiff as a board. More energetic, but still looking like Marcia Brady a decade after The Brady Bunch Movie, is Christine Taylor, who is given the opportunity to beat the crap out of her husband in the line of duty (she is Mrs. Ben Stiller). There are a few noteworthy cameos, including Hank Azaria, William Shatner, and a guy (identity kept secret to preserve the punch-line) who proves that he is capable of having fun at his own expense.
Few satires are capable of sustaining their comedic momentum for the length of a full feature film, and Dodgeball is no exception. The film starts out slowly, hits its stride fifteen minutes in, then starts flagging around the two-thirds point. By the time Dodgeball reaches its obligatory conclusion, all of the potential for humor has been burned up. Of course, comedy is subjective, and there are those who will be less-than-enamored with Dodgeball's sophomoric and occasionally vulgar brand of humor. For me, however, it was a pleasant diversion in the midst of a movie season that has been, to this point, a disappointment.
Dodgeball (United States, 2004)
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn, Justin Long, Stephen Root, Joel David Moore, Chris Williams, Alan Tudyk
Screenplay: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cinematography: Jerzy Zielinski
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox