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Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, Justin Long, Rip Torn, Julie Gonzalo, Stephen Root, Chris Williams, Gary Cole, Jason Bateman

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 18 Jun 2004; 2004)

Degradation

“Here at Globo Gym, we understand that ‘ugliness’ and ‘fatness’ are genetic disorders, much like baldness or necrophilia. And it’s only your fault if you don’t hate yourself enough to do something about it.” So exhorts Globo Gym owner White Goodman (Ben Stiller) in one of his many self-promotions. Head-banded, feather-haired, and extremely literal-minded, he’s prone to wearing matching silver tank tops and spandex shorts (with an inflatable crotch), stalking around his gym, and watching his well-heeled, utterly beautiful clients work out.


If he’s not so good-looking as they are, White never lets anyone knows he knows it. Indeed, he stresses his many other means of defining his self-worth, for instance, putting down anyone who even looks like he (or she) might threaten his fragile and mightily defended ego. His numero uno target in the plotless vacuum of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is sardonic, laidback Peter (Vince Vaughn). He’s the owner of Average Joe’s Gym, the rundown, brick-faced business that caters to unfit bodies, across the street from Globo. When the bank begins foreclosure on Average Joe’s, White connives to obtain the property, for Globo parking. Though it would appear Peter has better things to do than take White’s odious bait (like napping, swilling a beer), take it he does.


Let the grudgy, gross-out, and basically banal competition begin.


Per the film’s title, this competition takes the form of a world’s best and biggest dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas, where excess is the coin of the realm. Peter’s trajectory follows the “we can out on a show” formula: his clients and beer-drinking buddies decide they should enter the contest to win the $50,000 necessary to save the gym. And so they begin training, with the help of a one-time dodgeball champion, Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn, as grumpy as he can muster), whose methods include throwing wrenches at his players (as in, “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball”) and sending them across busy streets (“If you can dodge traffic, you can dodge a ball”). “Dodgeball,” Patches informs his players, “is a game of violence, exclusion, and degradation.”


And so they go to it. Though green, the team is scrappy and determined, willing to endure repeated—and I mean repeated—batterings with wrenches and balls. Though Peter has no initial drive (“If you have a goal,” he explains, “you might not reach it”), he’s inspired by the others’ general, if erratic, idealism. Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk) apparently thinks he’s a pirate (such that he wears an eye patch and a kerchief and repeatedly gulps, “Gar!”); Gordon (Steve Root) is too nice to seek violent victory (until he does, of course); Dwight (Chris Williams) defected from Globo; Owen (Joel David Moore) fulfills the gangly geek quotient; and cute Justin (Justin Long) wants only to make the high school cheerleading team in order to impress the apple of his dreamy eye, Amber (Julie Gonzalo). As if to underline the impossibility of his desire, Patches nicknames him “queerbait.”


The last member drafted is Kate Veatch (forever-Marcia Christine Taylor), introduced as the lawyer hired by the bank to organize the foreclosure files. While it’s abundantly clear why she resists White’s horrifically inept efforts at seduction (“So, you wanna mate? Er, you wanna date?”), it’s unclear why she fancies Peter, whose own repartee includes slipping in her door by pretending he smells cookies. At first, Kate—a former softballer with a killer throwing arm—demurs, but when White arranges to have her fired at the bank, she takes up her own vengeance mission, so that she too joins up to “kick his ass.”


As if to accommodate her desire, literally, White assembles his own team in order to ensure that Peter can’t win the necessary $50,000 to save his gym. Adopting the Globo gym motto—“We’re better than you and we know it”—White’s team is comprised of muscleheads named Blade, Laser, and Blazer, as well as his personal assistant, Me’Shell Jones (Jamal E. Duff, with a voice that sounds like Worf’s) and a uni-browed, gap-toothed, terminally awkward Eastern European super-dodgeball-player named Fran Stalinofskivich (Missi Pyle). In other words, she’s the ideal match for Owen.


While romance blooms, the tournament is broadcast on ESPN 8, “The Ocho!”, hosted by standard issue sports guys Cotton McKnight (Gary Cole) and Pepper Brooks (Jason Bateman), whose commentary ranges from obvious (“I don’t know how that Japanese team plays in diapers”) to out of the ordinary (“It’s like watching a bunch of retards trying to hump a doorknob out there”) to dated (“I feel like I’m watching a Cher video,” on seeing Peter’s team enter the arena wearing S&M “uniforms” that have been mistakenly delivered to them backstage). They can hardly be expected to complicate the film’s scheme, however, as it is an “underdog” sports movie, and you know that, following montages of dodgeballing rounds (with teams composed of stereotypes, including the Japanese Kamikazes, hiphop-inflected Skillz is Illz), a couple of dramatic off-court encounters, and a climactic final confrontation, the underdogs win.


Along the way, Dodgeball inserts some loopy, mostly irrelevant cameos (David Hasselhoff as coach for the German team, William Shatner as tournament mucky muck, Chuck Norris as a judge) that are so devoid of sense of significance that they seem only to underline the performers’ sad C-list status. When Lance Armstrong makes a brief appearance, to deliver a speech about not quitting even when the odds are stacked against you, he actually appears to be acting, in marked contrast to, say, Vaughn.


Despite this surprise, the bulk of Dodgeball is repetitive, frenetic and strangely gloomy. The gags—an onslaught of gay, hairy, and ugly jokes, on top of disability, celebrity, and penis jokes—come fast and less than furiously. The 12th time a guy gets whomped in groin, you’re over it already.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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