Call it Farrelly Brothers Lite. Very much in the tradition of “Kingpin” and “There’s Something About Mary,” “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story” gleefully commingles slapstick and scatology, satire and sentiment, in a free-wheeling farce aimed at making auds laugh until they’re thoroughly ashamed of themselves. First-time feature helmer Rawson Marshall Thurber, working from his own script, soft-pedals gross-out gags and full-bore raunch, yet still purposefully pushes pic into outer limits of PG-13 propriety. “DodgeBall” should score big enough with young males to ensure a leggy summer theatrical run, and doubtless will earn post-season points as homevid bestseller and cable-TV staple.
Indeed, the only conceivable impediment to a B.O. victory lap would be mainstream audience resistance to dodgeball itself. After all, this so-called “sport” is not-so-fondly remembered by many former grade and high school geeks (including a few who grew up to be film critics) as a source of physical pain and traumatic humiliation.
However, “DodgeBall” wisely taps into long-repressed resentments that may stem from memories of being pummeled with rubber balls in playgrounds and schoolyards. As its title implies, pic offers underdogs a fulfilling fantasy of revenge.
Functional plot pits under-achieving slacker Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn), owner of the gone-to-seed Average Joe’s Gym, against overbearing entrepreneur White Goodman (Ben Stiller), founder of an ultra-fashionable fitness center.
Goodman seeks to acquire and demolish La Fleur’s gym and construct a parking lot in its place. To keep the bank from foreclosing on his property and facilitating Goodman’s schemes, La Fleur must raise $50,000 in 30 days.
Forced to assume responsibility — in all likelihood, for the first time in his life — La Fleur forms a competitive dodgeball team with a few of the more colorful misfits who frequent Average Joe’s Gym. He plans to take the team to Las Vegas to compete for a $50,000 grand prize in a Dodgeball Championship.
Naturally, Goodman assembles his own team of bigger, stronger and more lethally accurate dodgeballers. Fortunately, La Fleur’s team gets help from an unexpected source: Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor), an attorney hired by the bank to inspect La Fleur’s books. She joins the Average Joe team to support the underdogs — and, more importantly, to punish Goodman for his sleazily aggressive attempts to woo her. (Stiller and Taylor are married in real life, and knowing that makes their scenes together all the more amusing.)
The Average Joe team is whipped into shape, literally, by Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn in his robust dirty old man mode), a wheelchair-bound taskmaster who barks insults and growls orders. Ultimately, the good guys arrive at the Dodgeball Championship. The event is covered by play-by-play announcers (Gary Cole, Jason Bateman) who are hilariously dead-on parodies of similar real-life commentators.
“DodgeBall” takes about 20 minutes to achieve full speed, and occasionally sputters and misfires even after getting of the ground. When its does work, however, it is explosively and shamelessly funny, earning guffaws with everything from dodgeballing girl scouts to wacky cameos by well-known players. Among the latter, oddly enough, champion bicyclist Lance Armstrong turns out to be the biggest laugh-getter.
Vaughn breezes through most of “DodgeBall” with engaging what-the-hell insouciance, and manages to sustain his comic rhythm even when his character seeks “redemption” through selfless behavior. Sporting a power mullet, Fu Manchu mustache and semi-buff physique, Stiller comes off as a live-action cartoon, which is pretty much what the script requires. Supporting players — including, memorably, Missi Pyle as a unibrowed, snaggletoothed Eastern European dodgeball ace — give performances sharply attuned to broadly comic nature of material.
Thurber, most famous for the similarly sports-themed “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker” TV commercials, keeps his debut pic moving at a suitably zippy pace. Tech values are fine across the board, thought it’s difficult to tell in some shots whether Stiller really is meant to look so much shorter than many co-stars.
And speaking of Stiller: During the final moments of “DodgeBall” — after the closing credits, just before the MPAA rating — he returns in fat-man make-up for one last joke. What makes the sequence so ineffably weird is Stiller’s none-too-subtle hint of genuine contempt for the aud. Some viewers will be left wondering if actor is offering some kind of indirect critique of contemporary tastes in comedy.