The Balls Roll Funny For Everyone

Wham, bam--thank you, Ben: Ben Stiller in 'Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story'
20th Century Fox

In all likelihood, the following review will seriously overrate Dodgeball, a lavishly mirthful work of Aristophanean comeditas (not actually a word, but who gives a rip?) and the finest motion picture thus far released in 2004. Because comedy tends not to age as well as fine American cheese or Chuck Taylor low-tops, I expect that at some point during Kerry's second term, I'll (silently) watch Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story on WGN and wonder what on earth I was thinking. Often I hope that the easily pleased folks who assured me my knees would be rubicund from constant slapping after watching Austin Powers or Charlie's Angels or some such junk have had similar moments of remorse. So if I screw you on this one, dear consumer, my advance apology is heartfelt. Then again, what am I worried about? Critical integrity? Fuck that! That was compromised by my very first published piece, a rave review of Fast Break for the Taft Elementary Beacon-Flambeau. ("If it wasn't already clear that Gabriel Kaplan is the superfluous [sic] comic of his--or any--generation, this slam-dunk basketball picture proves the point from its hilarious jump-ball to its inspiring final buzzer.")

Dodgeball is funny, funny, funny. The writer/director claims to be called Rawson Marshall Thurber, and he lives up to his surname. Dodgeball is funnier than Starsky and Hutch, which was pretty good (not great), and right up there with Kingpin or Strange Brew among jokes-keep-a-comin' dingbat comedies of the modern era. As you probably know, it's a Bad News Bears-type movie in which slovenly small-gym owner Peter (Vince Vaughn, who is bar none Hollywood's keenest practitioner of Vince Vaughn types) is threatened with a hostile takeover by smug and idiotic corporate-gym honcho White Goodman (Ben Stiller in his best role). Peter's loser friends are played with uniform excellence, but let's make special note of Stephen Root (Jimmy James on Talk Radio, the blow-up-the-building guy from Office Space), whose sniveling nerd here is the work of a seriously masterful comic actor. The movie culminates with a dodgeball match ("the five rules of dodgeball: dodge, duck, dip, dive,") between Peter's team of misfits (plus one fox played by Kate Veach) and White's sextet of thugs. Before that there's a preliminary match in which the good guys, due to a mix-up that's not worth explaining, have to dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge in bondage gear--a scene I'm still chuckling about.

I do have some aesthetic and moral caveats. Because the gags here are generally inspired and nonstop, the played-out, deadline jokes really stick out. The fine people of Germany's puzzling passion for David Hasselhoff (who appears as himself), for instance, is no longer funny. While we're on the subject, minor-celebrity cameos are dead altogether. Enough! And as with pretty much all the comedies in the Stiller-Vaughn-Ferrell school, the gay jokes are exhausting and lame. Folks have found "hip" new ways to tell gay jokes, but the hipness is bogus. These are, in fact, the same homophobic jokes from the bad old days. The joke is still the thing itself: that homosexuality is inherently funny, partly because it's still so scary. At one point, Justin (Justin Long, playing the same dweeby teen he played on the sucky TV show Ed, and doing it well) washes a car, something like Joy Harmon in Cool Hand Luke, kneeling in a yellow Speedo while a Deliverance-style redneck drools menacingly. I'm not so uptight that I can't enjoy a good anal-rape joke (or am I?), but haven't we seen variations on this particular one 5,200 times?

As for watching people get hit with wrenches, I have no problems--not one. "If you can dodge a wrench," says coach Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn), "you can dodge a ball." And then, like the regally stupid jokes in this movie, the wrenches fly. Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham!

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