Of all the tired movies that resort to the suffering hackneyed plot about a flashy, giant mega-emporium trying to take over a modest neighborhood business (“Barbershop 2” to name the latest), “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” is the best, and it isn’t even tired.
Vince Vaughn plays Peter La Fleur, the owner of Joe’s Average Gym, though the members you’ll soon learn are anything but, considering one of them believes he’s a pirate. Across the street from Peter’s modest old-fashioned low-rent gym is Globo Gym, which proudly boasts its motto: “At Globo Gym, we’re better than you. And we know it!”
Globo Gym is owned by White Goodman, an eccentric self-loving oddball who sports a blow-dried mullet, an umbrella shaped mustache, a button-size goatee, and an inflatable crotch pillow to highlight his workout shorts. He is played by Ben Stiller, in a performance that is -- I’m surprised to say -- unbelievably hilarious. With each awkward line and goofy grin, Stiller proves that even overacting for an entire film can work extremely well. And being that this is Stiller’s fourth film of 2004, he finally gets the laughs he’s been begging for. White Goodman is the type of character Stiller can play. More of “Zoolander” and less of “Envy” “Along Came Polly” and “Starsky and Hutch,” his agent should remember. He’s the perfect comic-book villain.
White plans to turn Peter’s tiny gym into a parking lot after its expected foreclosure in 30 days since accumulating a $50,000 debt. I can’t imagine poor Peter being too surprised as the lawyer for the guarantying bank, Kate (Christine Taylor) points out, he hasn’t collected dues from his members for the past several months.
To save his gym, Peter enlists himself and five of his gym regulars in a national dodgeball tournament hosted in Las Vegas. First place prize is -- of course -- $50,000 Winning won’t be easy however, as in their first qualifying match they get their asses handed to them by an unlikely group. Knowing that they will eventually have to face White Goodman and his Purple Cobras in the tournament, it is imperative they get the proper training.
To learn more about the full-contact sport they’ll be competing in, the group watches an old post-World War II instructional video narrated by the legendary Patches O'Houlihan, a dodgeball master who turns up in the present day to coach the ragtag team of klutzes now old and wheelchair-bound. O’Houlihan is played by Rip Torn in a solid performance that elicits laughter every time he belches out a profanity-laden insult or hurls a wrench at an unsuspecting player. I reassure you that even if you’ve seen the wrench-throwing segment in the commercial trailers a hundred times, it’s a completely different wind in the film and never gets old.
“Dodgeball” took me by complete surprise being the Ben Stiller fan I’m not. The film is writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s first movie and hopefully the first of many. You may remember his brilliant “Terry Tate Office Linebacker” Superbowl commercials, which are now popular Internet downloads. The sense of parody he knows so well is present here; most noticeably in his creation of ESPN 8: The Ocho, the official broadcasting station of the dodgeball tournament.
Behind the microphone is Cotton McKnight. He’s played by Gary Cole whom audiences will quickly recognize as the monotonous boss from the comedy classic, “Office Space.” Here, he’s an energetic sports announcer and gushes that the dodgeball tournament is "bigger than the World Cup, the World Series and World War II combined." His partner, a younger announcer, helps out with poignant observations such as his point that wearing a blindfold makes it harder to see.
A lesser movie with nowhere to go does anything it can to get cameos, even if it makes the film worse (I think of Rudy Giuliani in “Anger Management”) but “Dodgeball” has all the right ones (with at least six or seven) and all of them contribute to the hilarity of this production.
To go into anymore detail would be a disservice to the film. Somehow the studio advertisers managed to leave the best stuff in the film when they usually tell all in the trailers. Not this time. Jokes are aplenty and unlike most comedies, “Dodgeball” is consistently funny throughout its duration, whereas many of this kind fall flat after the first act. Sure there are low points; the final round of the tournament isn’t spectacular, and some of the jokes miss the target, but the humor is evenly spread out. Simply put, so far “Dodgeball” is the most fun at the movies this year.
Note: You may recognize some of the similarities between this and Vaughn’s comedy of last year, “Old School,” such as the heavily obese cheerleader/gymnast, but I bet I’m the only one who caught the Sisqo references. You’re welcome.