COMEDY: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (USA, 2004) 
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn

Stephen Fry was once asked what he felt was the difference between British humour and American humour. He replied that in America, the standard comedy protagonist was a fast-talking wise-cracker who could talk his way out of any situation and was completely above people in authority who stood in his way. In Britain, on the other hand, comedy protagonists are usually underdogs steeped in character flaws, who go out of their way to be a good person but regularly come a cropper through self-sabotage, events beyond their control or a combination of the two. While in America anyone can make it to the big time and their success garners praise and adulation, in Britain misery is ironically celebrated and success is either rare or something always happening to other people.
These two different approaches to comedy are very hard to reconcile, especially within the terms that Fry had couched them. But in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Dodgeball hereafter), they do find some common ground, thanks to a story which is as old as dirt and a willingness to make fun of its main characters. Its humour is undeniably juvenile, and it would be very hard to argue that it brings anything new to the table as a sports movie. But taken as an example of genre film-making, it does just about enough to scrape a pass and sustain our attention while doing so.
Even by general Hollywood standards, sports films are some of the most tightly formulaic offerings out there. It's easy to point at certain films which have created individual cliches within it - it's hard to watch any training montage without thinking of Rocky, for instance. But the beats of sports films are so predictable - at least when it comes to American offerings - that the sport itself becomes almost completely unimportant. You know from the outset that the underdogs are going to try their hardest to win, will come up against a team which is richer, more privileged or just generally better than them, things will get worse before they get better, and eventually through the power of teamwork and/or individual flair they will win the day (and someone may get the girl in the process).
The kindest thing that you can say about Dodgeball is that it is fully aware of how generic it is, and is trying to having the most fun it can within those limiting parameters. It doesn't do anything to either challenge or subvert the narrative beats of the sports film, and from a structural point of view it brings very little that is new to the table. What it opts for instead is using the familiarity as a springboard into a gallery of over-the-top characters and outrageous slapstick from which very few people emerge unscathed. Having let its audience get settled into the story, it attempts to blind-side them by being offensive, profane and just plain silly - and while not every joke successfully lands, it deserves credit for its consistent effort.
Much of the humour in Dodgeball is derived from outrageous situations reminiscent of the National Lampoon stable or the better works of the Farrelly brothers. There's no real reason for the team's kit to get mixed up with that of the S&M-themed team except to attract a laugh - just as there is no reason for Kate to reveal herself to be bisexual at the end of the film. The film unashamedly pitches itself to teenage boys and it's impossible to argue that all such jokes have dated well over the last 14 years. But at least it pitches itself as bad taste from the start and follows through with it, rather than claiming to be shocking and pulling its punches for fear of alienating its audience.
Such an attitude also extends to most of the characters. Why does Alan Tudyk's character think he's a pirate? Because it's funny. Does the film care that there's no reason or purpose behind this? No. Why is Rip Torn's character allowed to put his team in situations which could potentially harm them (e.g. dodging moving cars and wrenches)? Because it's funny. Does the film care that any sane person would either sue him or have him arrested, and find someone else the second these things happened? No. Besides Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, none of the major players have believable motivations or anything resembling a developed role - their characters only make sense within the confines of generic convention. They are there and behave the way that they do because the plot demands it, and the film is far too lazy and straightforward to present them as a parody of sports film protagonists.
If Vaughn gets a pass by being a believable avatar for the audience (for one of the few times in his career), Stiller does so by going in the opposite direction. White Goodman is a wonderfully silly creation, who epitomises the worst excesses of American self-belief and self-help culture. As he proved in Zoolander, Stiller is very adept at portraying flamboyant and overblown characters whose ego or rampant lack of self-awareness hides deep-rooted insecurities. It's arguably one of the best things he's ever done, if nothing else because of his total commitment to the character, and it's baffling that he was Razzie-nominated for what is one of the best performances in the film.
In my review of We're The Millers, I said that any successful comedy has to simultaneously keep two balls in the air: it has to keep the characters likeable or appealing, and it has to punctuate their story with sufficient jokes. Having established that we largely relate to the characters out of genre familiarity, the success or failure of Dodgeball lies predominantly on whether it has enough jokes to see us through 92 minutes. Fortunately for director Rawson Marshall Thurber, there is enough in the tank this time around, even if the jokes he opts for won't be to everybody's tastes.
The central problem with We're The Millers was that it took a half-decent narrative and ran it into the ground so quickly that it had to resort to badly-assembled improvisation and lazy gross-out jokes to keep the audience interested. In Dodgeball, the various movements of the story are so familiar that Thurber can practically set up the jokes in his sleep: he knows what needs to happen to make a given scene memorable (or at least tolerable), puts the camera in the place where the joke will work best, and crosses his fingers. Generally the slapstick is pretty good; people get painfully hit in all the usual places, but at least it's consistently funny to see them get hit.
While the slapstick is generally good fun, the verbal comedy is less successful. The commentary featuring Gary Cole and Jason Bateman falls completely flat - it's a pale imitation of the baseball commentary scene in the first Naked Gun film and ends up being as inane as the commentary team in Mean Machine. Stiller's stilted put-downs are funny at first but become a little wearisome as the competition rolls on, and even Rip Torn's shtick starts to grate once the initial training is over. As for the cameos by Chuck Norris and William Shatner, they add very little and give the impression of a film running out of ideas.
Because Dodgeball manages to keep the rate of its jokes up, and many of them at least somewhat hit the target, it ends up being a surprisingly likeable watch. It's comparable to the ending of Rat Race, insofar as you find yourself rooting for people and wanting good things to happen to them even as the rational part of your brain is working frantically to unpick and criticise their every move. Because it's so tightly hemmed in by convention and therefore so predictable in its outcome, you could never claimed to be surprised by it. But it does charm its way into your heart, even if it ultimately doesn't stay there very long afterwards.
The film's visual sensibility is also pretty decent, given how phoned-in many sports films can look. Jerzy Zielinski has had a very mixed career as a cinematographer, but he did lens both The Secret Garden and Galaxy Quest. This is far closer to the later, with its emphasis on blues and purples as things move towards the climax and the film having an off-puttingly tacky sheen to reinforce the un-likeability of Goodman. It's not the most distinctive film on the market, but his decisions compliment Thurber's camera positions and the lighting is solid.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is a decent if largely unremarkable effort which you will find yourself enjoying slightly more than you expected. It hardly deserves to be hailed as a classic, either as a comedy or a sports film, being knee-deep in clichés and relying on its blunderbuss approach to humour to see it through. But thanks to two good performances and enough jokes that hit the target, it does enough to hold our attention and induce a good few chuckles through its brisk running time. If nothing else, it's evidence that Vince Vaughn isn't always completely unwatchable.

NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)