(PG-13) 3 starsPaul F.P. Pogue
Ever since Animal House, as Ed likes to point out, we've seen comedy writing inexorably move from movies about slobs to movies by slobs. So it is with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. It's a glassy, unfocused, undisciplined mess, but somewhere in the middle of it is a goofy, hilarious movie with a big heart. The plot concerns a slovenly, average joe named Peter (Vince Vaughn) who runs a slovenly gym named Average Joe's. Peter's bookkeeping is as sloppy as his shop, and so he's deep in debt and about to be bought out by his lifelong nemesis, White Goodman (Ben Stiller), owner of the slick Globo Gym.
But wait! If he can win the big dodgeball championships, he'll get the money to save his shop! So he assembles a ragtag team (including the marvelous Stephen Root, Alan Tudyk and Christine Taylor), gets trained by a wheelchair-bound aging dodgeball legend (Rip Torn) and then it's off to Las Vegas for the national dodgeball championships for a showdown with their nemeses, Globo's Cobras, broadcast live on ESPN-8 ("If it's almost a sport, we've got it!").
The movie is as insecure as its main characters. It wants to be loved and it tries very very hard to get that love. Even as the first pie is still in the air, it keeps flinging one after another after another. There are enough subplots going nowhere - Steve thinks he's a pirate! The kid wants to impress the cheerleader chick! - that make you wonder what they were thinking at any given time. Script written by committee hung over and late at night.
But you know the funny part? It works. Despite half a dozen setups that don't pay off, despite the fact that we get about 20 more dodgeballs-to-the-crotch than are actually funny, despite the fact it shouldn't hold together at all, it works. Just when you think it's falling flat, it jumps out with a knowing, sly joke ("It's four Cobras versus two Joes!" - you'll date yourself if you catch that one) or a great moment from minor characters, like Gary Cole and Jason Bateman as befuddled sports analysts. The dueling egos of Vaughn and Stiller on display are in themselves worth the price of admission.
And the entire concept - an underdog parody about an underdog sport - is clever enough by half to justify checking it out. The film takes advantage of surprise celebrity cameos in a funnier way than anything I've seen in years. No fair telling how. Don't be surprised if this one becomes a big hit on the cult DVD circuit.