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A True Underdog Story

Some people warm their hearts with stories of their fellow men finding inner reserves of strength, overcoming all odds to succeed at a seemingly impossible mission. Some people just think it's really funny to see guys get knocked unconscious by red balls. Moreover, they snicker every time somebody utters the phrase "red balls." Fear not. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story gets heartwarming chocolate in its slapstick peanut butter, and brings two great tastes together.

There is teamwork. There is friendship. There is overcoming of insurmountable obstacles. There is Rip Torn in a wheelchair throwing wrenches. There are red balls. Lots and lots of red balls.

Like There's Something About Mary, this film really is that rare confluence of gross comedy and keen storytelling that marked the best of the genre that started with Animal House. Even Curtis Armstrong, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, shows up in a cameo to pass the torch and acknowledge the past. Yes, despite its low comedy, Dodgeball deserves a little pseudo-intellectual discussion.

The difference between those eighties comedies and now is that Hollywood doesn't work the same way. They don't make little movies that seem little anymore. So Dodgeball may owe a lot to formula films like Hot Dog: The Movie or even Up The Creek, but it now has to have a lot more flash. But writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber turns that to his advantage, giving us bombast when necessary but never losing track of some tightly written if obvious characters.

Most of the flash comes from his set-up of Globogym, the sterile overachieving workout conglomerate run by the evil White Goodman (Ben Stiller). A domed city of total fitness, Globogym has the most up-to-date equipment, including plasma screens from which White can act as a dimwitted Big Brother, observing and haranguing his clients in pre-recorded messages. The cleverest production design goes here, as the film goes wild with subtle (and not so subtle) homoeroticism, particularly in White's office.

Literally across the street, Average Joe's Gym struggles to get by. Run by underachiever Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn), its appearance is rudimentary. Here, the characters get the fine detail reserved for Globogym's interior. Stephen Root and Justin Long show up to play extreme versions of their recent television roles on King of the Hill and Ed, but any annoyance at that is offset by just how good they are at it.

Average Joe's isn't just for lovable losers. Though Pete's slacker heart is open to them, giving them a place to go and hide from the realities of their lives, he also deals with one true loon: Steve The Pirate (Alan Tudyk). At first, it's possible that Steve is just a guy from the Treasure Island casino that takes his role too far. But no, that would be too easy. Take it in stride that Steve simply thinks he's really a pirate. After a particularly harsh dodgeball training session, that eyepatch comes in handy, too.

Since there must be conflict, Dodgeball throws in a financial crisis, the threat of foreclosure from Globogym, and of course, the potential prize money that could save it all. The plot plays from a predictable book, and presents its beats with neon signs. All the better to throw in some detailed joke. Acknowledging that its very premise is silly, the characters find their inspiration in a magazine called Obscure Sports Quarterly. And yet the movie would have you reconcile that with a huge dodgeball following on ESPN 8 - "The Ocho." Not so silly, really, when you consider how much attention curling got at the last Winter Olympics. Sports fans will watch anything to feed their jones.

And really, as presented here, dodgeball has its fascinating elements. Even the out of shape can play, though Hank Azaria as young Rip Torn cautions in a training film, always pick the bigger, stronger kids for your team. Yes, a lot of playground pain gets played for laughs.

Most importantly, the laughs keep coming. At some points, the jokes come so fast and furious that it's almost hard to breathe. Somehow, the film keeps coming up with new and effective variations on the sound of rubber smacking heads, and Long and Root both manage to never fall down the same way twice. But again, there's also some really smart character work.

White Goodman, for example, is an ingenious Stiller creation. A former fattie, he has an obsession with food that borders on sexual, which Stiller turns into hilarious moments. There's a purposeful unlikable element, too, in White's swagger. He clearly equates his success with an intelligence that he doesn't actually have, constantly misusing big words and trying to prove how smart he is. White may be the dark side of Derek Zoolander, but he also has a lot of mannerisms that look suspiciously like Tom Cruise.

In the role that would have once gone to Tim Matheson, Vaughn takes it all in stride. Though mostly a straight man to the lunacy around him, the actor has great timing. He also has a rare mixture of sincerity and snarkiness, absolutely crucial to making this movie work.

Dodgeball also throws in a lot of cameos, celebrating actors who may not be known for comedy, but are actually some of the funniest people around. Between Arrested Development and this, Jason Bateman has earned himself a golden comedy career that Valerie's Family can no longer stain. As sportscaster Cotton McKnight, Gary Cole continues to prove himself an incredibly versatile actor.

And then there's the stunt casting, including the best obligatory athlete cameo ever. It's awkwardly performed, as few athletes are actors, but it is as sharp and stinging as the feel of that rough crimson polymer scraping across your cheek at high speed, sending your black plastic-framed glasses clattering to the ground.

Sorry. Flashback.

Anyway, it comes down to this: I laughed so hard at Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story that I thought an eye was going to pop out. And do stay for the post-credits scene, or as we call it here at Fanboy Planet, "the monkey." Because that's where my eye almost exited my skull.


Derek McCaw

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