Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

on June 18, 2004 by Wade Major
Of all the time-honored genres that Hollywood repeatedly recycles and foists upon the public, the underdog sports film is among the most rigid in terms of both structure and content. It's a formula that dates back decades and was already so finely-tuned by "The Bad News Bears" that few subsequent efforts have seen fit to make any noteworthy deviations. It's a template that foreign filmmakers have embraced, too, such as in the Pierce Brosnan-produced Irish soccer film "The Match" and the French-Canadian hockey hit "Les Boys" and its sequel. There's little doubt that the makers of "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" appreciate that fact--the film's title and an amusing end credit tag both call attention to it with a wink and a nudge. What's meant to set this film apart is the breadth of its comedy and a certain peculiar playground nostalgia surrounding the offbeat sport of dodgeball itself. Unfortunately, there really isn't enough there to cover for the clich├ęs, making "Dodgeball" intermittently funny at best, an overlong comedy sketch at worst.

Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn) is a nice, disorganized guy who runs a ramshackle gym called Average Joe's. As he can't be bothered to keep financial records or charge fees to his minuscule clientele of misfits, it's only a matter of time before the bank threatens to foreclose. Waiting eagerly in the wings to snatch his gym and turn it into an auxiliary parking lot is his rival from across the street, former fatbody-turned-fitness guru White Goodman (Ben Stiller), a self-centered egomaniac who stands atop an empire of elitist high-tech Globo Gyms. It's a done deal unless LaFleur can come up with $50,000 which, as luck would have it, is the winning purse in an obscure Las Vegas dodgeball tournament. Predictably, Goodman and his Globo Gym team also enter the tournament, as much for the joy of humiliation as to guarantee the foreclosure. But LaFleur and his band of uncoordinated nerds and oddballs (Joel Moore, Chris Williams, Justin Long, Stephen Root, Alan Tudyk) have a secret weapon in the form of their coach, a loud, uncouth, paraplegic former dodgeball legend named Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn).

It's hard to imagine anyone but a frozen caveman not being able to guess how all of this plays out, which puts an incredible burden on writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber to find other ways of sustaining interest. Initially, they get their mileage out of the sport itself--watching geeks get pummeled with balls is funny stuff... the first dozen times. But it's a well that quickly runs dry, resulting in a marked letdown during the picture's final half.

Stiller, who also executive produced, is likely to get a warmer reception out of his core fans, a group that typically shares his fondness for retro-kitsch comedy rooted in pop culture icons and phenomena of the '70s and '80s. Like "Zoolander," "The Cable Guy" and "Starsky & Hutch," "Dodgeball" revels in a very particular kind of nostalgic satire that will undoubtedly tickle many a Gen-X funny bone. If only the film itself had just a little more muscle on its bones. Starring Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn and Stephen Root. Directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Produced by Stuart Cornfeld. A Fox release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for rude and sexual humor, and language. Running time: 92 min

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