There’s a place in life for movies like this—goofy and lowbrow but never truly icky—the good guys are lovable losers and the bad guys have frosted feathered hair and unitards with inflatable codpieces.
There’s very little plot to go around, in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, so writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (in his feature debut) sets up a revolving door of cameos. Somehow Jason Bateman steals the show from the likes of Chuck Norris and William Shatner and a tag-team ensemble of notable second bananas (along with the aforementioned cast, note Gary Cole and the redoubtable Curtis “Booger” Armstrong).
You don’t need me to tell you what happens, but here’s a précis: The rathole gymnasium of big lummox Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn) is up for grabs due to a tax snafu, so fitness impresario White Goodman (Ben Stiller, of the inflatable codpiece) schemes to buy him out—unless LaFleur’s clientele of weirdos and 90-pound weaklings can raise $50,000. Wouldn’t you know, the American Dodgeball Association of America is having its championship in Vegas, with a $50,000 jackpot?
Lots of people get tagged in the nuts. There are training montages and Rip Torn. It’s all very straightforward and efficient, and the script gets in a few good licks at ESPN and David Hasselhoff. Is it great cinema? Of course not. In its most labored moments, Dodgeball is an overlong skit. But those moments pass rapidly. Thurber, who’s made short films, has a better sense of timing than Stiller exhibits when he directs himself, as in Zoolander, and the movie doesn’t truly beat its jokes to death. There are a few mean-spirited moments (Justin Long collapses under a cheerleader of size, for example) but Dodgeball is practically genteel in comparison to your typical mass-market summer comedy. (I don’t recall any fart jokes or explosive diarrhea.)
There’s kind of a feel-good message and traces of satire (“Dodgeball is a sport of violence, exclusion, and degradation!” boasts Hank Azaria in a vintage “training film”), but let’s not kid: This movie’s raison d’être is putting Stiller’s pumped-up merkin in harm’s way.
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (2-1/2 Stars)
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn, Stephen Root, Justin Long, Joel David Moore, Chris Williams
(Rated PG-13, 91 min.)