"Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" is a stupid comedy made smart by debuting writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber's wit-filled, good-natured hold on the material. The film, which is a cross between David Zucker's underapprectiated 1998 gem, "BASEketball," and 1988's "Major League," takes practically every convention of the sports genre possible and makes it feel fresh with a zippy pace, likable actors clearly having a blast, and often on-target comic timing. There's nothing deep or meaningful about any of it, but then, there isn't supposed to be. For fans of strictly low-brow humor, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" will come as a godsend.
Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) is the nice-guy owner of a lowly local gym called Average Joe's that is constantly being upstaged by Globo Gym, the high-tech, ultra-snooty corporate fitness club across the street. When he is told by kindly lawyer Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor) that he has thirty days to come up with the $50,000 needed to get himself out of debt, or risk losing the place to make way for a Globo Gym parking garage, Peter is ready to throw in the towel. With the help of his few loyal misfit members, however, including teenage chearleader-wannabe Justin (Justin Long), the aptly-named Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk), and the terminally cheerful Gordon (Stephen Root), they formulate an idea. If Peter and his friends can make it to Las Vegas to compete in a national dodgeball tournament and win, the grand prize is $50,000. What they don't expect is that they will have to play against White Goodman (Ben Stiller), the health-and-self-obsessed owner of Globo Gym, and his minions. Along the way, Kate, who has eight years of softball training under her belt, begins to sympathize with Peter's cause and joins their team.
Above all else, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" is a genuine crowd-pleaser (given one isn't easily offended), more than willing to be downright sophomoric in the name of garnering big laughs. Although there are a fair share of comedic misses, and at least ten too many ball-in-the-groin-style jokes, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber has filled his screenplay with enough clever one-liners, downright outrageous asides, and off-the-wall surprise cameo appearances that it is easy to wade through the rough patches.
Although it would be criminal to spoil the picture's funniest moments, look out for a 1950's educational video on dodgeball that Justin nabs from his P.E. class, which skewers the ridiculousness of such short films to hilarious perfection; the elderly, wheelchair-bound Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn), once a dodgeball champion who teaches the "sport" to Peter and the gang by throwing wrenches at them and making them dodge traffic on a busy city street; and a locker room mix-up at the Las Vegas championships that forces the Average Joe's to wear some highly compromising uniforms. Meanwhile, Cotton McKnight (Gary Cole) and sidekick Pepper Brooks (Jason Bateman) take the roles of two of the most off-color, dim-witted commentators to ever show up in a sports comedy. And don't even thinking about leaving before the end credits have rolled; the coda is one of the most perverse and ingeniously funny in recent memory.
Vince Vaughn is typecast so frequently as the heavy (i.e. 2004's "Starsky & Hutch
," 2001's "Domestic Disturbance
") that it is sometimes difficult to remember just how charming he can be as the lead protagonist. Here, as the lovable Peter La Fleur, whose neglect in charging membership fees to his gym customers has left him broke, Vaughn is at the top of his game. Likewise, Ben Stiller is so often the romantic lead (i.e. 2004's "Along Came Polly
," 2003's "Duplex
," 2000's "Meet the Parents
") that it is a veritable treat to see him go deliciously over-the-top as the daffily psychotic White Goodman. Take his character of Zoolander
, who was in love with himself, and take out all of his attributes, and you'll have a good idea of how Stiller plays the part.
The rest of the cast performs their duties with engaging vigor, including Christine Taylor (2001's "Zoolander
") as the unicorn-obsessed Kate Veatch; a standout Rip Torn (2002's "Freddy Got Fingered
") as the no-nonsense Patches O'Houlihan; Justin Long (2001's "Jeepers Creepers
") as teenage "queer-bait" Justin; and Stephen Root, as Gordon, in the most memorable role he's had since 1999's incendiary "Office Space."
As seems to usually be the case with comedies, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" hits some potholes as it nears its finish. A third-act conflict that arises, although holding a purpose in the long run, halts up the laughs for a little too long. Luckily, it comes back for a rousing final few scenes, including an unexpected discovery about Kate that is admittedly quite brave for this kind of lighter-than-air entertainment. For viewers already growing weary of this summer's special effects extravaganzas and who just want to laugh for 90 minutes without having to think too much, the no-holds-barred "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" will happily do the trick.