As I write this, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is nearing the $100 million mark at the box office. That fact alone speaks to a cultural divide that is perhaps beyond repair, but as the opening credits rolled, I held out some hope that at the very least, I wouldn’t be pushed to the brink. But pushed I was, as Dodgeball managed to be even worse than I expected, checking in a notch below My Baby’s Daddy as one of the worst films of the year so far. Obviously with a title like Dodgeball, one cannot expect greatness, but one can demand competence; some sign that the filmmakers are at least trying to make us laugh. And yet, I did not let one sound emanate from my lips, which is just a fancy way of saying that I was too fucking pissed and depressed to give a shit. The clown behind me more than made up for my silence, and I was forced to spend the entire 96 minutes wondering how assholes like that function in a world that is obviously too complex for their understanding. This young man, like the other contributors to the success of this excrement, requires only simple, shiny things to get them through life; bright, pretty colors that also emphasize numerous shots to the crotch. I took a vow years ago to never again so much as chuckle to a man crumbling to the ground after being smacked in the balls, and yet these folks — average, painfully juvenile Americans all — reacted as if they were seeing such things for the first time. The niceties must cease; “the people” deserve to die. Now, and with much gurgling.
As for the film, the premise should tell you everything you need to know. Vince Vaughn is Peter La Fleur, a well-meaning loser who owns Average Joe’s, a dump of a gym that caters to the un-athletic, pathetic, and painfully eccentric. It’s more of a hangout than a place to get in shape, and Peter seems unconcerned with making any money from membership fees. In steps Kate, a lawyer who works for a bank that is inching ever closer to seizing Peter’s place, as he has failed to pay the Hollywood standard of $50,000 in back taxes. It’s amazing how taxes owed always round up to a nice, clean figure [Ed Note: Not mine], but that’s another matter. Kate is also employed by White Goodman (Ben Stiller), the owner of an upscale exercise facility who also wants to buy Average Joe’s and turn it into a parking lot. All hope seems lost until one of Peter’s members discovers a dodgeball competition in Las Vegas, where first prize is — you guessed it — exactly $50,000. I’ll get this over with right this fucking minute. The Average Joe team meets Goodman’s squad in the finals, where they appear to forfeit, only to have an obscure rule allow the match to continue, which of course ends up in sudden death, where Peter and White face off one last time. Yes, Peter wins, but takes home more than the cash prize. You see, the night before, in a fit of depression, Peter sold White the gym for $100,000, which he then used to bet on his own team, a 50-1 underdog. After the Joe’s win, Peter announces that he is going to take his winnings, buy controlling interest in White’s gym, fire White, and celebrate the victory of the underdogs. It’s all so damned sweet, right?
Again, no one expects the twists and turns of Memento here, but even clichéd stories — usually in better hands — find a way to move beyond the obvious and add a little flair to the familiar. There might even be a character that garners our interest, almost as if that person should be in another film. Here, everything is not only obvious, but always in service of a machine-like determination to play it safe. It’s all quite silly, deliberately stupid, and over-the-top, but within that framework, it doesn’t take steps that might befuddle the audience. No one is ever able to ask, “What in the fuck was that?” because the film is quite content to be a typical sports movie. In a way, this film coasts on the idea that it should be inherently funny that we are watching a film about dodgeball, as if the script need not be bothered with after the premise is finalized. “It’s the game we all played as kids, isn’t that a riot? They’re making that into a movie!” Why not Tetherball? Or Four Square? You can see why so-called great ideas need to be re-thought before the checks are signed.
And another thing. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie so blatantly homophobic and homoerotic at the same time. White’s gym is oozing with beefcake, and his assistants take great pleasure in slapping each other’s asses. We also get numerous scenes that begin as if we’re intruding on White fucking another man, only to have the camera pull back and reveal an exercise routine or session of weightlifting. And then there’s the completely unnecessary car wash scene, where the Average Joes appear in their underwear while one of the guys scrubs tires, while he is also being watched by a sweaty, leering hillbilly. Guys are touching each other constantly here, and there are many remarks about manhood, testicles, cock size, and butt cheeks. Is this type of humor a send up of the male ego and our collective insecurity? I doubt that, only because the target audience for this film has little understanding of deeper issues at play. As if they cared anyway. No, I believe the “comedy” implied here is related to the belief that “queers sure is funny” and how guys really want to fuck each other, present company excepted of course. Who knows? Still, when a film derives a good 3/4 of its humor from homosexuality, one must wonder why anyone in the audience is laughing. Either they’re bigoted or secretly aroused.
And I simply must talk about Mrs. Stiller (Christine Taylor), who looks like Karen Carpenter in her final weeks, and even that’s being generous. Vaughn is also an embarrassment, giving a performance that can only be called “zombie-like.” He sounds weak, tired, and disinterested, and I don’t think it’s his character. Stiller, as usual, talks above, over, and through everyone else on screen, as he’s far more interested in being “on” than portraying a character. With his feathered hair, gay-ish goatee, and flamboyant manner, he’s giving us the trappings of hilarity, without any of the insight. In nearly all cases, true humor stems from truth. We laugh because we recognize some element of a character; perhaps in us, but usually in the general population. Stiller’s antics, however, are unlike anyone we’ve ever met (or are likely to meet) and as such they are little more than the bizarre creations of a screenwriter. They lack authenticity, as does every single moment of this film. Satire worth its salt never requires a literal wrench to the head, and it certainly does not accept a dodgeball team in S&M uniforms as the height of hilarity. There are even cameos by William Shatner and Chuck Norris, always a sign that the hip quotient is at a dangerously low level. Shatner I can understand, even if he’s now a joke who continues, time after time, to play himself playing himself. But Norris? Where, if I may be so bold, are the guffaws to be found by showing Chuck Norris as a judge in a dodgeball torunament? Was Norris ever connected to the sport, which might then be a clever in-joke? Who wrote this shit? The film also forgot the essential rule of cameos — if the appearance doesn’t poke fun at the actor’s image or act to contradict everything we think we know about them (i.e. Barbara Billingsley in Airplane!), they serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever, other than to remind us that the casting director wasn’t able to bribe anyone else.
Other signs of desperation? How about characters named Cotton McKnight and Pepper Brooks? Or perhaps Patches O’Houlihan? Or a guy who thinks he’s a pirate? Or the German dodgeball team that gets ready in the locker room by chanting to a picture of David Hasselhoff? Shit, why not show a French squad praying to Jerry Lewis? These jokes are way past tired; they’re dead and fucking buried. There’s also a team of lumberjacks, which inspires an announcer to shout “Timber!” as one is knocked to the ground. And Japanese players who dress like sumo wrestlers. And so on and so on, cocksucker. Made by and for the submental, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story may indeed be a genuine hit, and I thank “We the People” for their blissful, ignorant consistency.