The dodgeball they made us play in junior-high gym class was a lot less structured than the pro-level stuff we see in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Mostly it was a matter of two groups of kids, staring across the gym floor at each other and gunning that red ball at whoever didn’t move fast enough. But the gist of it is the same — as dodgeball legend Patches O’Houlihan describes it in a vintage instructional film, it’s “a game of violence, exclusion, and degradation.” Dodgeball touches on all three to render a satire of sports and sports movies. It’s hardly a great movie — many scenes are laughless. But it’s good semi-clean fun, the sort of scruffy comedy made for couch viewing on a rainy Thursday.
Vince Vaughn takes what could be considered the Bill-Murray-circa-1981 role — Peter La Fleur, lackadaisical manager of Average Joe’s Gym, which, by benign neglect, he’s managing right into the ground. Peter’s gym is really more of a clubhouse where misfits can hang out and feel like they’re working out. The clientele includes Gordon (the always dependable Stephen Root), a sad sack with a disrespectful mail-order bride; Justin (Justin Long), an aspiring cheerleader; Steve (Alan Tudyk), a goofball who thinks he’s a pirate; Dwight (Chris Williams), who used to work at an airport and prefers his non-work at the gym; and Owen (Joel David Moore), who can be relied upon to mix things up disastrously.
This motley crew is endangered by the insufferable White Goodman (Ben Stiller, relishing a rare bad-guy role), egotistical owner of the high-scale GloboGym across the street. White wants to buy out Peter, raze Average Joe’s, and put in additional parking space for his clients. Peter needs $50,000 to hold off debt, and Gordon notices that the grand prize in an upcoming dodgeball tournament is, conveniently, $50,000. With the help of GloboGym lawyer Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor), who can’t stand White and who has a vicious underhand throw from years of softball, Peter puts together the Average Joes team — who will eventually face off against White’s team, the Purple Cobras.
Like many directors trying to deliver a just-this-side-of-R-rated comedy that’s legally accessible to the lucrative teen market, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (a rookie) hints at a lot of dirty business without showing it; parents may find themselves explaining to their kids what “assless chaps” are, or why some audience members guffaw when Peter and his crew go to a bar named the Dirty Sanchez. Thurber gets a lot of mileage out of the hostile rapport between Vaughn and Stiller, who sound as if they improvised their scenes together. Rip Torn brings his usual irascible glee to the role of the now-broken-down Patches O’Houlihan, who offers his coaching expertise to the Average Joes and soon wishes he hadn’t.
Dodgeball gives us quirky heroes to root for, though I wish White’s team — including the hulking Me’Shell (Jamal Duff) and the frightening Fran (Missi Pyle, alarmingly uglified) — were more strongly individualized. A few of the Purple Cobras just seem to be Star Trek red-shirt types, solely there to get hit by our team’s dodgeballs. The fight here is really only against one man, the arrogant White, and, by extension, the whole narcissistic-masochistic gym culture he stands for. You can tell White is a bad apple because of his mustache; between Vaughn’s own ‘stached villain in Starsky and Hutch and Will Ferrell’s clownish Ron Burgundy (with facial hair that resembles two large, amorous caterpillars) in Anchorman, recent comedies seem to hold stock in Norelco.
The climactic battle between the Joes and the Cobras gets you worked up the way this stuff always does, and two sportscasters for “ESPN 8” (devoted to obscure sports), played by Gary Cole and a blissfully out-of-it Jason Bateman, pose some competition to Fred Willard’s clueless emcee in Best in Show. I didn’t like how the movie loses track of Alan Tudyk’s pirate fetishist — he plays Steve endearingly, with some sense of how ludicrous the character is, and makes us wish Steve (who may have been named after Steve Zahn, whom he resembles) had embraced his inner swashbuckler and come back to carve up some Cobra meat. This being a farcical comedy, the denouement is a little too neat, though you don’t go to a movie called Dodgeball for a starkly realistic ending. The film wants only to pit its common-man heroes against a bunch of colorful, laughable adversaries, and achieves this goal admirably. I don’t know whether it’ll become a cult comedy like Office Space or the first Austin Powers — for one thing, it’s made too much money, trouncing its opening-weekend competition, the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film The Terminal, by racking up almost twice the grosses. Now there’s a true underdog story.