“Grab life by the Ball.”
That’s the tagline for “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” and it pretty much says it all. With eccentric comedic performers like Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Rip Torn, this low-brow affair should have contained enough offbeat moments to elevate itself from the mucky muck of dick-and-fart-joke movies. Instead, the movie dodges laughs as rapidly as it panders for them.
First-time feature film director/writer Rawson Marshall Thurber obviously has a thing for sports parody. His funny series of commercials featuring “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker” have been a big hit on television and online for two years now. (They featured an enormous football player trash-talking and tackling employees at an office building who weren’t up to company snuff.) His script for “Dodgeball” was written specifically for Vaughn and Stiller, supposedly playing to their strengths as comic actors. But in order to sustain its 95-minute running time, “Dodgeball” needs a whole lot more than a five-minute commercial spot.
Peter LaFleur (Vaughn) owns and barely operates Average Joe’s, a dilapidated, sorry excuse for a gym that attracts a small and loyal band of weirdos. In one of the movie’s more peculiar jokes that never takes off, one of the regulars thinks he’s a pirate.
Directly across the street, White Goodman (Stiller) runs GloboGym, the huge corporate giant of a health club, decorated with every possible likeness of its vainglorious owner. Goodman has begun a plan to buy out Average Joe’s and hires attractive banker Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor) to expedite the process. LaFleur has a month to come up with $50,000 dollars, so naturally, he and his band of misfits enter a dodgeball tournament.
Rip Torn, who was so perfect as Garry Shandling’s ego-soothing producer on “The Larry Sanders Show,” turns up as grizzled dodgeball veteran Patches O’ Houlihan. Like Stiller, his performance is so over-the-top, you expect him to burst out of his wheelchair at any moment and strangle somebody. He is trying so hard to be funny because there is scant opportunity built in the script for laughs. So Torn is reduced to yelling and throwing wrenches in order to coach the Average Joes on to dodgeball victory.
Stiller should be having fun with White Goodman, a cross between Derek Zoolander and the fat camp trainer he played in “Heavyweights.” Instead, the pained expression you see on his face for most of the movie seems not only to reflect the desperation of the character, but also the hopeless situation Stiller finds himself in, having to manufacture all of the “funny” by himself.
Vaughn, on the other hand, saunters his way through “Dodgeball” without a care in the world. He knows he’s playing the good guy, and his Vaughnisms are kept down to a minimum. LaFleur is a likable loser, so it’s no surprise when Veatch starts falling for him. What is a surprise, though, is how little of his patented verbal tongue-lashing actually appears in “Dodgeball.” With this weak of a script, Vaughn should also be working overtime to manufacture laughs, but he doesn’t.
“Dodgeball” dares to pose the question: “How many times can someone be hit in the face or crotch before it isn’t funny anymore?” I’m sure everyone has his or her own breaking point. Mine was somewhere around the second reel. The director has a steely determination—the sheer number of times that Thurber goes for the same joke over and over again is impressive. He may have set a new record for (as Tony Hendra so aptly put it in “This is Spinal Tap”) “ramming it right down their throats!”
And if there weren’t enough horrible “ball” puns and people getting smacked in unfortunate places, “Dodgeball” also has a cornucopia of fat girl jokes, a good dose of homophobia, and mucho machismo. And where have we seen the old male cheerleader-trapped-under-the-fat-girl-where-his-head-shouldn’t-be gag before? It must have been another bad movie that I’ve only partially been able to erase from memory. The whole messy affair is really beneath most of the actors.
The new sports show “Extreme Dodgeball” premiered last week on The Game Network, presumably inspired by the movie. It features eight “teams with themes” who compete against each other while Jerri from “Survivor” provides commentary. Like the movie, it should be funny for about 15 or 20 minutes, tops.