- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Dodgeball: “a game of violence, exclusion and degradation,” says Hank Azaria in a comically wicked mock-instructional video in “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.”

Those same qualities might apply to the movie itself, an inspired, gag-aplenty debut from writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber.

The violence comes in all manner of red-rubber blows against cheek, nose and, you guessed it, crotch. By its potty-humored, screwball nature, “Dodgeball” excludes those who take their comedy with tea, crumpets and brain cells.

The degradation? That’s the self-lampooning job of Ben Stiller, who, as the repressively insecure fitness Nazi White Goodman, is seen wearing an acrylic suit with an inflatable codpiece. This while putting the moves on real-life wife Christine Taylor, here playing a just-one-of-the-guys lawyer with a rifle of a softball pitching arm.

“Dodgeball” is an odd man out in the grand tradition of lowbrow sports comedies — “Slap Shot,” “Major League,” “Tin Cup,” etc. — because, unlike hockey, baseball and golf, dodgeball isn’t really a sport so much as a politically incorrect method of torturing children in gym class. (Reader, forgive me; the memory of hurling a ball at a bespectacled girl just popped into my head.)

But, hey, because there’s no such thing as gym class anymore, why not make a man’s game of it?

That dodgeball is a marginal activity is one of many sly jokes in “Dodgeball,” as fat guy Gordon (Stephen Root) discovers in “Obscure Sports,” a quarterly journal advertising an international tournament in — where else? — Las Vegas that promises $50,000 to the winning squad.

Gordon is one of the misfits at Average Joe’s gym, a seen-better-days workout facility run by the amiable loser Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) as a kinder, gentler alternative to White Goodman’s sleek, corporate big-box Globo Gym.

Behind on mortgage payments and too nice to collect membership dues from the likes of Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk), outcast Owen (Joel Moore) and high school cheerleading reject Justin (Justin Long), La Fleur is on the brink of losing Average Joe’s to the rapacious Goodman, a reformed overeater whom Mr. Thurber conceived as the evil twin of Richard Simmons.

Winning the competition would give Average Joe’s the cash infusion it needs to stay afloat, and Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn), a wheelchair-bound dodgeball legend, is there to whip the guys — and, for purposes of love interest, the gal (Miss Taylor) — into ball-slinging shape.

Goodman, ever fearful of being one-upped, enters the competition with a steroidal gang of ringers, plus a he-woman Russian who survived a nuclear accident.

The confrontations between La Fleur and Goodman consist of Mr. Vaughn in dripping deadpan and Mr. Stiller slipping in and out of that deep-throated voice disguise he introduced as an undercover agent in “Starsky & Hutch” earlier this year.

By the time it reaches Vegas, “Dodgeball” finds its comic groove in a profusion of surprising cameos, joke TV graphics (the tournament is broadcast on the ESPN network’s eighth offshoot, “The Ocho”) and scene-chewing one-liners from Gary Cole and Jason Bateman as courtside broadcasters.

“Dodgeball” is so packed with good comedy writing that even its throwaway details — one team of German dodgeballers calls itself Team Blitzkrieg — score laughs. Mr. Thurber must have spent ample time, too, inventing a novel rule book for competitive dodgeball, complete with line infractions and sudden-death playoffs.

As Mr. Cole’s announcer character says, “What a game … What a sport.”

What a movie.

***

TITLE: “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”

RATING: PG-13 (Rude and sexual humor; profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Produced by Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld. Cinematography by Jerzy Zielinski. Music by Theodore Shapiro.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes.

WEB SITE: http://www.dodgeballmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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