Sports movies are a dime a dozen. We’ve seen movies about hockey and baseball, football and basketball… Heck, I’m still waiting for the challenge of foosball brought to the big screen... But all of those are more specialist stories, more of interest to an audience of fans or players of that given sport. There’s only one sport that seems to be a universal constant, played in schools across the country and hated in every one of those schools. It’s a sport of humiliation and degradation, and now somebody’s made a movie about it: Dodgeball.
The plot for Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is as simple as you’d expect it to be for a sports movie. The underdogs (in this case Average Joe’s Gym) are in danger of losing their gym to a rival (in this case Ben Stiller’s White Goodman and his Globo Gym). Said underdogs enter a tournament to win money to save their gym and inevitably end up facing said rival. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber seems to recognize that the plot is going to be easily recognized by anyone who has seen a sports movie like The Mighty Ducks or Necessary Roughness (to name a few) so instead just has fun within the boundaries of that plot. That’s not to say he doesn’t toss in a few minor twists here and there. The result is a plot that’s predictable, but still delightfully interesting. We know the team is going to go from plot point A to B to C, but it’s still extremely fun watching them get there.
Dodgeball combines a perfect cast of actors to play out its hilarious tale. It really is the ultimate dream cast of comedic character players. Vince Vaughn leads the "Average Joe’s" as Peter La Fleur, a generally nice guy who tolerates just about anything, as his teammates test his limits of frequently. The rest of his team is comprised of oddball characters such as Steve (Alan Tudyk) who thinks he’s a pirate, or Stephen Root’s Gordon, who seems to be a combination of Root’s "King of the Hill" character Bill Dauterive and nerdy Lewis from the Ghostbusters franchise. The result is a character that only Root could pull off, and will one that be as remembered in the same breath as his other characters from Office Space or Oh, Brother Where Art Thou. Rip Torn adds his wonderful talents as dodgeball legend Patches O’Houlihan, taking on the arduous task of coaching our heroes with some questionable tactics. Finally of note, the lovely Christine Taylor adds some needed beauty to the ranks of Joe’s Gym as Kate and turns out to be a great plot device as a character sought after by the villainous White Goodman.
And let’s talk about White Goodman for a second. In recent years Ben Stiller has been typecast, often by himself, trapped into playing the same role over and over again. It was almost as if the genius shown by his career pre-There’s Something About Mary just dried up or disappeared. This year Stiller has not only shown a different (and fun) character in Starsky & Hutch, but his performance in Dodgeball as White Goodman may very well be the best comedy work he’s done since Mary. He is the type of villain who would push over a grandmother as he crossed the street to steal candy from a baby and Stiller’s over the top portrayal of him is brilliant.
The fantastic thing about Dodgeball isn’t just its primary cast though. The secondary cast, which has about a billion cameos that must be seen to be properly experienced, is just as successful as the lead actors. Where Dodgeball’s script really succeeds is in that it doesn’t waste a single one of its actors. Nobody is just there to be cool, every notable actor who appears gets golden dialogue as well. It’s a real testament to Thurber’s skills as a writer and director, properly handling everyone in the background, from sports commentators played by Gary Cole and Jason Bateman, to a brief appearance by Chuck Norris. Too many movies get good stars to put in brief appearances and then miss good opportunities to use them. Dodgeball lives up to its ad campaign by grabbing each member of its cast by the balls and utilizing them to their fullest potential.
Dodgeball’s greatness goes beyond its acting and script though: It’s in the little details as well. It’s in the background signs in Joe’s Gym ("Failure is an option, but lets try to learn from our mistakes" reads one) vs. the cold metal feeling of Globo Gym. Or the almost mocking use of sports-techno music to introduce teams as they step onto the court, or the sound of the dodgeball as it hits player’s faces and bodies. Or the use of hulking figures to make Ben Stiller’s egocentric character seem so short. If the devil is in the details then Thurber has given up his soul because from script to screen he’s made a film that rivals, surpasses, and knocks most modern comedies.
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