NOW PLAYING: Dodgeball

Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Who doesn't share this gem of a memory? A whole gymnasium full of 10-year-olds. A big wire hopper full of bouncy red balls. The grim assurance that you, despite the presence of a cornucopia of athletically inept fourth-graders, are definitely getting picked last. Top it all off with the inevitable whistling smack as the balls repeatedly careen off your skull, followed by the gentle reprimand of the coach: "Hey guys, no head shots." And to you? "C'mon, walk it off! Be a man!" In this week's new film, Dodgeball, you can revisit these memories over and over, only without quite as much "fun."

The irony of it all is, despite that relatively accurate description of most of my dodgeball experiences, I loved the game growing up. I guess I was a glutton for punishment, but nothing beat the shocked look on my playmate's faces when I finally landed a shot. "Wow! Jenness actually landed one!" Whack! With that in mind, I was looking forward to the film version of this truly ridiculous game. The trailer suggested a broad send-up ala Airplane or The Naked Gun as a group of losers fight to save their gym from corporate takeover by entering themselves into the National Dodgeball Championships. The film promises wackiness, and wackiness is what you get...some of the time. The problem arises when the filmmakers forget how idiotic the idea of a "Dodgeball Championship" is, and actually start taking it seriously. They truly care about their characters, and they want us to as well. They want us to feel uplifted when the underdogs finally win the championship, but what they forget is that no one came to this movie to be uplifted - they came to laugh. Dodgeball is a stupid game - fun, but stupid. Dodgeball the movie seriously falters when it gets carried away in the import of the scene and forgets that it's all a joke. That's not to say that the whole film is a love affair with the Far from it. There's plenty of laughs, smart and dumb, just not enough to carry this film to the place it needed to be. This is a dumb film that should have embraced the idiocy instead of trying to rise above it with real emotion or weight.

Vince Vaughn is Peter La Fleur, friendly proprietor of Average Joe's - a run-down gym with a lackadaisical attitude and even worse cash flow. Ben Stiller is White Goodman, pumped up fitness mogul, owner of Globogym, a serious attitude, and a wicked Fu Man Chu. The inevitable clash comes when it is revealed that Goodman has assumed an interest in Average Joe's mounting debts and plans to level the building in favor of a parking lot unless Peter and his plucky band of misfits can raise $50,000 by the end of the month. Actually, I think that's the plot of every silly movie ever made. But Peter and crew persevere in the face of overwhelming odds and overwhelming cliches because they've got an ace up their sleeve. Thanks to a careful reading of Obscure Sports Monthly, it's discovered that the Dodgeball Championship carries a substantial cash award. You can guess the amount. And thus, an hour and twenty minutes of crotch shots and whanging hits to the head later, we reach the inevitable conclusion where it all comes shambling to a feel-good close.

Where Dodgeball excels is certainly not in its footage of the actual game. I mean, let's face it, there's very little diversity of play in a game like this. Granted, as a friend of mine remarked, it may be no stupider than any other sport we worship in this country, but at least in those other competitions, there's a chance that something interesting might occur. Remember when Randy Johnson pulverized that bird pitching to the Giants? That's what I'm talking about. With dodgeball it's pretty much all the same shot over and over...and over. No, where it excels is in the subtle interaction between Stiller's dimwitted White Goodman, and the other characters, especially Peter and Christine Taylor's lawyer/love interest Kate. The moments where Goodman tries to intimidate only to be greeted by blank stares are priceless and reminiscent of Stiller's other classic moron comedy, Zoolander.

In the brief periods of inventive slapstick, ("If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!" Whack!) and in the too-few-and-far-between bits of clever dialogue, Dodgeball fulfills the brilliant premise that fuels it. Most of the time however, it falls into either the trap of extreme repetition or unwelcome sincerity. Despite its good intentions, Dodgeball ends up as less of a party and more like the drunk friend who you wish would just wrap up the story he's reciting for the fourth time, quit telling you he loves you, man, and just go home. Grade: C-

Dodgeball is rated PG-13 for crude humor, cartoon violence, and language.

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