Gags about boogers, flatulence, projectile vomiting and “titty twisting” are batted about like so many foul balls in “The Benchwarmers,” a minor-league comedy about three adult dweebs who seek redemption of some sort by playing and defeating Little League teams in tournament play. Pic wasn’t prescreened for critics, perhaps because Sony figured this blooper was aimed at people who don’t read reviews (or much of anything else). But the film opened to $20.5 million, suggesting that this guilty pleasure laff riot for young male auds may have broader appeal.
Pic traffics heavily in wish-fulfillment for nerds, geeks and other socially maladroit types. Gus (Rob Schneider) has a lovely wife (Molly Sims) and a successful landscaping business, but he has never fully recovered from a childhood marred by bullying experiences.Still, he’s far from being a total spaz. The same can’t be said of his two best friends — vidstore clerk Richie (David Spade) and overage paperboy Clark (Jon Heder) — who spent their grade-school years as easy targets for cruel classmates.
After Gus rescues an easily intimidated youngster from the torments of bullying Little Leaguers on a neighborhood sandlot, he earns the gratitude of the boy’s father, Mel (Jon Lovitz), an extravagant billionaire with his own unhappy memories of being a picked-upon kid.
For Mel, living well is the best revenge, but it’s just not sweet enough. So he provides the financial backing for Gus (who’s actually a pretty good baseball player) to form a three-man team — called the Benchwarmers, of course — with the chronically klutzy Richie and Clark. Then the billionaire lays down a challenge to all young players in the area, offering a multimillion-dollar sports stadium to the winner of “Mel’s Tournament of Little Baseballers and Three Older Guys.”
“The Benchwarmers” is a fantasy, impure and simple, so it’s probably unfair to judge the behavior of its characters by real-world standards. Still, pic never completely dispels the discomforting impression that there’s something rather creepy about adults trying to increase their self-esteem by defeating, humiliating and, occasionally, physically manhandling children. True enough, scripters Allen Covert and Nick Swardson take pains to depict many of the younger opponents as nasty bullies and emphasize that at least one of the blowhard coaches (Craig Kilborn) used to be an even nastier bully himself. But that’s not nearly enough to keep the protagonists from seeming borderline pathetic.
Under Dennis Dugan’s rote direction, Schneider winds up playing straight man to Spade, who once again relies on his snarky coward shtick, and Heder, who comes across like someone doing a bad imitation of … well, Heder himself in “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Lovitz also goes through familiar motions, but he’s clearly enjoying himself, and his joy is sporadically contagious. It helps that he gets some genuinely funny stuff to say and do, as the proudly nerdy Mel flaunts prized purchases. He owns an original Batmobile and the K.I.T.T. car from “Knight Rider” as well as “Star Wars” memorabilia. But wait, there’s more — Mel also manages to hire no less a coach than Reggie Jackson (a good sport when it comes to self-parody) for his Benchwarmers.
Like many comedies of its kind, “The Benchwarmers” builds to a climax that combines gross-out humor and schmaltzy sentiment. The sappy stuff reeks of fraudulence, but give the filmmakers some credit: The outcome of the final game is satisfyingly upbeat without being entirely incredible. Tech values are much better than necessary.