“So what are you dying from that’s keeping you from the finals?”
I’m usually the guy who watches the trailer for a stupid raunchy comedy and instantaneously declares it unworthy of my time. For some reason, however, Rawson Marshall Thurber‘s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story hit every mark necessary to have me believing it could actually be entertaining. I was unfamiliar with much of the cast save the three main leads—it introduced me to both Justin Long and Alan Tudyk—but something about the sheer absurdity of a major league, cable broadcast dodgeball tournament was zany enough to pique intrigue. In fact, I saw this thing three times in the theater before all was said and done. Pockets of my friends had yet to check out its brilliance and I was more than willing to help facilitate their experience. And now, a decade later, it’s just as good.
For a film that relies heavily on gags, Thurber somehow found a way to coherently string everything together inside his plot pitting two rival gyms against each other. Led by Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) and White Goodman (Ben Stiller) respectively, Average Joe’s simply cannot compete financially with publically traded entity Globo Gym. Joe’s clientele is softer, more eccentric, and the epitome of the “underdog” of the title while Globo’s is filled with potential “American Gladiators” who are giant, muscle-bound, and on the edge of vengeful rage. So when Peter discovers his ownership in default and White knocking on the door to buy him out from the bank to level the property flat, he and has ragtag group of misfits hatch a plan to earn the fifty grand necessary to stay in business.
Luckily for them, the American Dodgeball Association of America is about to start up in Las Vegas with one more local regional championship on the docket. All Joe’s has to do is beat a bunch of Girl Scouts and they’ll be headed to the dance. In grand comedic fashion they are demolished, humiliated, and demoralized only to find victory thanks to a technicality. Enlisting a former dodgeball all-star from the audience to coach them with his highly unorthodox style (Rip Torn‘s Patches O’Houlihan) and gaining the former softball star lawyer handling Goodman’s takeover because of her quickly growing revulsion towards him (Christine Taylor‘s Kate), Joe’s heads to Vegas with newfound confidence. The one hitch in their plans turns out to be Globo joining the fun by compiling their own team of ringers too.
From there the film is simultaneously displayed with real world interactions between players and the graphic-heavy, sports commentary parodying broadcast coverage on ESPN 8 “The Ocho”. Like Best in Show before it and Pitch Perfect after, the team of Cotton McKnight (Gary Cole) and Pepper Brooks (Jason Bateman) is a delight in their over-the-top musings on the insanity unfolding. There are disqualifications, sudden death eliminations, and a whole lot of personal grievances aired on the court for Cotton to illustrate and Pepper to smirk and parrot it all back as though he’s adding to the conversation. A healthy dose of irony arrives, quick scenes of exposition from Gordon’s (Stephen Root) reading of the rule book and White’s past as a “fatty” gain traction, and truth is thrown to hurt feelings and derail everything Joe’s stands for.
Inevitably, whatever happens in the tournament is ultimately less important than how the wonderfully colorful athletes engaged it in are brought to life. Vaughn is his usual calm, sarcastic, and charming self on one end while Stiller goes above and beyond with the smarm to deliver a memorable adversary for us to laugh at. Taylor’s the straight man in the middle mirroring our own grossed-out faces every time White speaks and Torn provides the one-liner machine of vulgarities and old man raunch you won’t forget. The rest—Long (Justin), Tudyk (Steve the Pirate), Root, Joel David Moore (Owen), and Chris Williams (Dwight)—deliver the everyman pratfalls and idealistic hope needed to truly care how it will all work out. They are consummate failures devoid of self-respect who band together to prove that personal victory is possible.
Add in Jamal Duff‘s comedic size disparity against Stiller as Globo Gym’s second in command Me’Shell, Missi Pyle‘s transformation into Romanovian Fran Stalinovskovichdavidovitchsky (the deadliest woman on earth with a dodgeball), and a slew of cameos from the likes of Lance Armstrong and Chuck Norris and you’ll see that Dodgeball is about the joke first and foremost. It’s how those jokes infer on the plot, however, that allows Long to get hit in the head with a wrench and genitals with a rubber ball so often and still remain hilarious. You’re invested enough in each character to really root for them whether this type of story’s ending happily is a foregone conclusion or not. You accept contrivances as necessary evils for the comedy as long as the laughter never stops. It surely never does.
PS: Don’t forget to stay until after the credits for a fantastic pop culture reference dance from Stiller as well as a thinly veiled “screw you” to the studio about how American cinema culture forced the filmmakers to change the ending into what we see today. SPOILER ALERT: the original script had Average Joe’s losing when all was said and done.