Dodgeball misses the mark.

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June 18 2004 5:57 PM

Low Blow

Dodgeball hits audiences over the head with its stupid, juvenile (but sometimes funny) humor.

Nice pecs, Ben
Nice pecs, Ben

The explosion of interest among grown men in dodgeball—i.e., throwing balls very, very hard at people while trying not to get hit by balls being thrown very, very hard at them—confirms what many of us have known for some time: that American males would love to have a little toggle switch that would make them, in an instant, 12 years old. (Given their druthers, they'd probably switch it back only to get laid and buy beer.) It's too bad that the new comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (20th Century Fox) doesn't explore the psychology of this familiar character, dubbed the "rejuvenile" by the writer Christopher Noxon. But the movie, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, is pretty much a manifestation of the rejuvenile phenomenon. Modeled on such slob-comedy '70s/'80s hits as Meatballs (1979) and Caddyshack (1980), it's coarse, primitive, regressive, often very stupid, and sometimes, against all odds, really a hoot. Just watching grown-ups get bombarded by rubber balls, you know? Makes me feel 12 again.

The movie's premise is established so lazily that the script might have been written by its hero, Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn)—a feckless ne'er-do-well who runs a cruddy Vegas gym, Average Joe's, full of dweebs, nerds, geeks, and, for variety, outright loonies, like the guy who thinks he's a pirate and goes around saying, "Arrrr." For some reason (most of the picture's plot turns could be prefaced, "for some reason"), the owner of an upscale corporate super-gym, White Goodman (Ben Stiller), decides that he wants to put Average Joe's out of business—although he'd hardly want its clientele showing up at his place. He sneers, "In 30 days, I'll be bulldozing that shit heap you call a gym into nothingness." Faced with the demolition of their beloved gym/community center, the dweebs/nerds/geeks/loonies decide to enter a national dodgeball competition in order to win $50,000 to—Sorry, it's too demeaning to summarize.

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So, unfortunately, is Vaughn's performance. His character is meant to be noncommittal, sloppy, and dispirited, but there must be a way to act those things without being them. Bill Murray, the genius of the prototype, brought an air of grace to degeneracy: He really appeared to be on a higher astral plane, far above such bourgeois concepts as hygiene and manual labor. Vaughn has no subversive wit, no comic motor, nothing. You want to see him slammed with balls just so he'll react.

Stiller, at the other extreme, has enough energy for 10 clowns. It's true he's insanely overexposed, but at least this performance is a change of pace—a return to the demented extroverts he used to play on his old Fox variety show. He's muscled up here, with huge bronzed arms and a swollen chest—which means he gets to make fun of bodybuilder morons and still have us think, "Nice pecs, Ben." That said, Stiller has always been disconcertingly built up, like the quintessential runt in the Charles Atlas comic book ad who has had sand kicked in his face too many times. He uses that massive chip on his shoulder to give White Goodman real pathos. Every detail—from the feathery blond mane to the mutton-chop mustache to the toasty voice that keeps cracking to the gyrating pelvis—is an act of self-flagellation. The icing on this masochistic beefcake is that Stiller gets to put the moves on his own wife, Christine Taylor (as a bank lawyer who ends up on the dodgeball team), who is repulsed by him to the point of nausea and who gravitates to the barely-awake Vaughn.

The picture's wild card is Rip Torn—the ultimate chuckling nihilist bastard—as the wheelchair-bound dodgeball founder Patches O'Houlihan, who makes you laugh when he shows up and keeps you laughing until his untimely (and poorly staged) exit. Patches trains the team by pelting them with extremely heavy objects, with the movie's sound people helpfully overamplifying every bruising thud. The dodgeball competition sequences are a riot because they're edited not for coherence (coherence and dodgeball don't go together) but maximum pain: Bonk bonk bonk and lots of ouches and wounded glares. Nothing like getting slammed with rubber balls to bring out the blubbery child in a person. Dodgeball is junk, but now and then it's a scream—a primal scream.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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