Stiller, Vaughn Having a Ball

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004

THERE ARE AT LEAST TWO requirements for a good lowbrow comedy. (Question: Should "lowbrow" and "good" be in the same sentence? Discuss.) They are -- drum roll, please -- a complete and almost blissful lack of taste, but also the comic flair to raise it above the merely stupid and make it funny.

Whoa. What are we talking about, "Citizen Kane"? Let's reverse out of this comic seminar and proceed directly to the movie, which is "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story." Yes, you'd be right to assume this comedy is complete poison, thanks to the 57th appearance of Ben Stiller in a movie this month. But darn it, if the Stillmeister isn't pretty hilarious this time, as the wonderfully repulsive White Goodman, the '70s-coiffed, spandex-attired owner of an exclusive fitness center called Globo Gym. (White suggests the lovechild of Eric Roberts in "Star 80.")

He's not the only funny one. This is also a good movie for Vince Vaughn (who sometimes suggests a cross between the Cary Grant of "Arsenic and Old Lace" and Bill Murray), as White's indefatigable adversary, Peter La Fleur.

Peter is the lackadaisical owner of Average Joe's, a gym for the lumpy, tubby, meek and generally anti-Adonis crowd. But he doesn't pay his bills to the tune of $50,000. Which suddenly makes him vulnerable to a hostile takeover by White, who wants to raze Peter's gym and turn it into a parking lot for his super gym. Peter is resigned to selling out until his clients rally, including cheerleader wannabe Justin (Justin Long), Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk) and Gordon (Stephen Root), a mild-mannered middle-ager. Gordon comes up with an idea: If they form a dodgeball team, they can enter a national competition in Las Vegas. The big prize is, of course, $50,000.

Enlisting White's disgruntled lawyer and softball veteran, Kate (Christine Taylor, also Stiller's wife) and a former dodgeball great (Rip Torn) called Patches O'Houlihan as their coach, the misfits head to Vegas. But White, who has some pretty bionic bodies at his command, enters the competition, too. He wants that old gym at any cost.

The rest of the movie is a spoof on every misfit-team caper from "The Longest Yard" to "The Mighty Ducks." But writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber makes you forget convention and enjoy a genuine yukfest, full of down-and-dirty (but funny) gags and one-liners, and memorable scenes. The piece de resistance is when hard-bitten and wheelchair-bound coach Patches trains the incompetent team to dodge balls by throwing steel wrenches at their body parts. (There's a good chance "Dodgeball" contains the most direct assaults on the groin in movie history.) He also makes them run through traffic. Gordon's first dash across the busy highway isn't completely successful.

The movie's a treasure of small gems, such as a parody of 1950s-era instructional films, called "PE Class," made by the Nazi-esque Uber-American Films and featuring the young Patches, or the inflatable codpiece that White manually pumps up when he's anticipating an attractive female visitor to his office. The movie's also rich in face-to-face verbal standoffs, especially between laid-back Peter and almost psychotically intense White, who refuses to let his complete incompetence with vocabulary or the English language interfere with his self-adoration or misfired sarcasm. It's easy to overlook the fact that lowbrow comedy is hard to write without tumbling into the crude pit. In this movie, Thurber has clearly taken the time to get things right.

DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (PG-13, 91 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and lewd, crude humor. Area theaters.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company