The summer of 2004 was one of those fortuitous moments when the fantasy of the movies and my reality crossed paths. Having recently seen Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, a friendly dodgeball game convened at my apartment complex’s tennis courts. That game evolved into over five years of balls-to-the-wall fun in the city league. Though it’s considered a ‘child’s game,’ those who know dodgeball know it’s not for the weak of heart…
Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn), owner of Average Joe’s Gymnasium, has learned that his gym is near the brink of foreclosure; partly due to his laid-back business tactics, but mostly due to his rival, White Goodman (Ben Stiller). The narcissistic Goodman wants Joe’s shutdown so he can add extra parking for the members of his corporate Adonis factory, Globo Gym. With little time, La Fleur and with his rag-tag band of employees and clients do the only thing possible to generate the needed cash: enter the American Dodgeball Association of America International Dodgeball Championship in Las Vegas. The Joes’ quest and their pathetic dodgeball skills catch the attention of seven-time all-star dodgeball champion Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn) who offers his expertise to help defeat Goodman’s Purple Cobras team, win the $50,000 and save their gym.
I hold writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber in high regard mainly because he, like me, believes Ghostbusters to be the best comedy ever made. Prior to Dodgeball, Thurber directed the Terry Tate, Office Linebacker commercials for Reebok. After shopping his script around, Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films picked it up, and with Thurber attached to direct, the fun began. In the commentary, Thurber mentions an old adage that “90% of directing is casting.” In this instance, I couldn’t agree more.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Stiller, but I have to give him props for White Goodman. Goodman is a grade-A Ass (with two capital A’s) and Stiller makes you want to put a fist right above his handlebar mustache. Vaughn, on the other hand, has always been a personal favorite; I find his dry sarcasm hilarious. Although these fellas are funny, the film meanders along the first twenty minutes while introducing the supporting cast.
Justin Long plays Justin, the stumbling teen who’s training at Joe’s for his school’s upcoming cheerleader tryouts. At this point in his career, Long was fairly unknown aside from his role on TV’s Ed and the painful Jeepers Creepers franchise. Dodgeball displayed his comedic talent to a larger audience, and opened up higher profile roles.
Stephen Root plays the gym-rat, know-it-all. In a part obviously written as an homage to Rick Moranis’s Louis Tully of Ghostbusters, Root dutifully stares through thick lenses while spouting factoids pertaining to every conversation’s topic. Root’s Gordon is the driving force behind the dodgeball competition, thanks to his subscription to Obscure Sports Quarterly. Like most roles he plays, Root is the comedic anchor; so good at what he does that you know if he’s starring, you can laugh at at least one character.
Previously, Alan Tudyk was known primarily as Wash from the beloved, but short-lived series Firefly. In Dodgeball Tudyk dabbles in comic absurdity as Steve the Pirate. That’s right, he’s an average joe (pun intended) who dresses, talks and firmly believes he’s a pirate. Peter, who lets people be who they are, goes along with his delusion. It’s not a huge part for Tudyk, but let’s face it, we all secretly wish more movies had pirates.
Another relative unknown at the time, Joel David Moore plays Joe’s attendant Owen. Since, he’s starred in Katy Perry videos and under-the-radar B-movies as the cool cat, but here he’s a uber-geeky nerdmeister with no chance of ever finding love. That is, until Globo Gym’s ringer, Fran, enters the scene. Though Missi Pyle ranked on Maxim’s ’100 Sexiest Women’ list in 2004, you wouldn’t know it seeing her unibrow and catawampus teeth. The scene where she’s revealed still makes me cringe.
Fran’s not the only love interest. Peter and White both have their sights on the bank’s lawyer Kate (Christine Taylor). Knowing Taylor is Stiller’s wife makes the scenes where she seems mortified by White’s advances all the more funny. Kate isn’t just a sex doll to be tugged to and fro by our main characters; she unleashes a ferocity on the court that makes the rest of the Joes look exactly like the little girly men they are.
Even with all this great and soon-to-be-great talent, Dodgeball leaves you feeling something’s missing. Rip Torn’s Patches O’Houlihan is that element. His bizarre anecdotes and brutal training tactics raise the bar of hilarity one-hundred fold. I nearly double-over with laughter as he pelts Justin, Gordon and any slow-moving target with wrenches. He’s vulgar, dirty and just plain bizarre even when he’s trying to mentor the ambiguous Peter in the five d’s of dodgeball; dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge.
Veteran character actor Gary Cole plays lead announcer Cotton McKnight alongside Pepper Brooks (Jason Bateman). Cole is always a reliable straight man, but Bateman breaks away from his usually stoic delivery for an over-the-top portrayal that he will be called upon to do in many future roles. There are still a few cameos from some legendary television personalities to mention, but I leave some surprises.
The story doesn’t hold too many surprises in terms of execution and resolution. The shock comes mainly from watching grown people get repeatedly smacked in the face by large rubber balls (and the occasional wrench). If you’re easy to offend, the vulgar language of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story stings the ears about as bad as a red rubber ball to the temple. The real joy is in watching the characters sell every minute of this ridiculous story. Without this stellar cast, Thurber’s hilarious script may have fallen flat on its face. I, like Thurber, have to thank Ben Stiller for taking a chance on a little script no one thought could make it.