It's been awhile since I've picked up a Sports Illustrated, but last I remember they had a little weekly feature called "Sport or Not", if I remember correctly. Each week they would pick a certain game, and ask professional atheletes in various sports whether or not they thought that particular game was an actual sport, or just a game. If they haven't picked dodgeball for this feature, they certainly will soon, with the release of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. It would certainly be picked on this movie alone, but now there is actually a televised version of the game called Extreme Dodgeball aired on the Game Show Network. Sounds like fun, but where the hell was the Game Show Network in 1998 when BASEketball came out?! Oh yeah, the movie. This is by far the funniest movie of the year, set against a wonderful backdrop of "professional" dodgeball and filled with some colorful characters and a surprisingly inventive script.
We start off the flick with a commercial for Globo Gym, starring the gym's founder White Goodman (Stiller), who, in Men's Hair Club fashion, is not only the founder, but also a client, as we see a picture of him from a few years ago that would make Fat Bastard look like Mini Me. Globo Gym is this huge franchise, and right across the street is Average Joe's Gym, a run-down gym with run-down clientel, run by an average joe named Peter La Fleur (Vaughn). He's very laid-back, not even worrying about membership fees from his regulars. This, of course, is a problem, when a lovely banker (Taylor) informs him that he'll lose the gym if he can't raise $50,000. Of course, Globo Gym will buy it out if Peter can't raise the scratch. So, over a few beers, they decide to enter a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas where, of course, the first prize is $50,000. And Globo Gym puts together a team as well to stop them.
What I really liked about the movie was that it embraced its predictability. Rookie filmmaker Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn't set the world on fire with this story. Besides the dodgeball aspects of it, it's a basic story: some losers try to raise money to avoid having their ratty gym sold off. You know how it's going to end, and Thurber realizes that. So he doesn't stray from the predictability, but he throws you a few curveballs along the way, even though the end result is basically how you'd imagine it. The best example of this is when the committee members of this dodgeball league are put to a vote. There are 3 members, and, if you've seen scenarios like this unfold in the movies before, you could predict that the first member would vote yes, the second no, and the third yes. But the curveball here is the deciding third member is none other than Chuck Norris. Just brilliant. And there are even some more clever twists at the end that you'd never expect to see coming in this type of movie, and it worked wonderfully.
We've been seeing a lot of Ben Stiller this year, and that hasn't always been a good thing. Along Came Polly flopped, Starsky and Hutch had a decent showing, but Envy is probably the worst movie so far this year. But Stiller is back on point here as White Goodman. Stiller has this knack for playing damn near the exact same type of character in all of his movies. But every now and then he plays a character totally outside of his norm, and usually, he's great at it (See: Permanent Midnight). And he is on-point here as White Goodman, which seemed like a wonderful mix of Dr. Evil, Dark Helmet and either Hans or Franz from that SNL skit. Just looking at him, with his fu-manchu and deer-caught-in-headlights expressions is hilarious enough, at times. This is easily Stiller's best performance since The Royal Tenenbaums, where he played the saftey-freak Chas.
Stiller easily gives the best performance here, but Vince Vaughn turns in another great performance as well. He's more laid-back than we're used to seeing him, but he pulls it off nicely, as the easy-going Peter. Stephen Root, an amazingly diverse actor, gives us a few glimpses of the Milton character from Office Space that made him famous, as the timid-yet-talkative Gordon. Chris Williams, brother of actress/singer Vanessa Williams, is pretty good as Dwight, one of the "average joe's" but his character, along with a few others, just seemed to have no purpose but to fill out the dodgeball team. Rip Torn is just too over-the-top as dodgeball coach Patches O'Hoolihan, and Christine Taylor, Stiller's actual wife, is nice to look at, but she really can't act. But there are two wonderful smaller performances, in the announcers at the dodgeball tournament, Gary Cole and Jason Bateman. It reminded me a lot of the announcing duo in Best in Show, Fred Willard and Jim Piddock. Cole plays the regular announcer nicely, but Bateman's goofball "color commentary" provides some of the funniest moments in the movie. I never knew Bateman was that diverse, but he gives just a fantastic performance here.
Thurber's script won't win any Academy Awards, but it's a very solid debut effort. This isn't really a movie that demands much character development, and we don't get much here. But the movie is just plain over-populated with its characters. The two young kids on the Average Joe's team, Owen and Justin, played by Joel Moore and Justin Long, have no real purpose here, but to fill out the team. Thurber tries to rationalize Justin being there, with this very dumb sub-plot about him being a failed cheerleader, and it just isn't needed. Owen is barely heard from, and when we do hear from him, it isn't anything worth hearing. But still, this script is wildly hilarious, with some off-beat cameos and some wonderful dialogue. True, some of the humor just doesn't work, ("I love you." "Joanie loves Chachi.") but everything else more than compensates for those failures.
Thurber is also solid at the helm in his feature directorial debut. The dodgeball action is captured in a nice, swift style and he is great with his talent. It will be interesting to see what he takes on next, because he looks to be a great talent in comedic filmmaking. Hopefully it's not hopscotch or something, but I'm sure he could even make that funny.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story nails down the underdog part, even though it doesn't appear to be true. But, truthfulness aside, this is a delightful romp of a flick that will have you laughing more than anything else that's been in the theaters this year. This is the cinematic equivalent of standing by a patch of ice on the sidewalk, and just watching people slip on it. You know you shouldn't laugh, but you just can't help it...