Originally created 06/18/04

At the Movies: 'Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story'

Dodgeball is a love-it or hate-it sport. You either have fond childhood memories of hurling those red rubber balls at opposing heads and groins and torsos - occasionally taking a beaning yourself - or you were one of those kids in danger of soiling your gym shorts on dreaded dodgeball day.

Likewise, audiences generally will be predisposed for or against "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," Hollywood's first foray into that favorite sport of playgrounds and phys-ed classes.

If you find inherently funny the notion of a coach flinging wrenches at his players to hone their dodging instinct, then by all means, see this movie. If the idea of klutzy grown men taking on a troop of Girl Scouts in dodgeball doesn't click, then you might want to sit this one out.

Starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, the movie is little more than an elongated TV skit, though it's a generally goodhearted bit of silliness that provides some genuine laughs.

The stars reverse roles from their last collaboration, "Starsky & Hutch," in which Stiller was a good guy and Vaughn the villain.

This time, Vaughn's the hero, noble slacker Peter LaFleur, proprietor of the cozy but financially derelict Average Joe's gym, a run-down haven for geeks and losers. Stiller, also a producer on the movie with film partner Stuart Cornfeld, plays White Goodman, a bully who runs glitzy fitness gulag Globo Gym.

White has bought the second mortgage on Average Joe's, which he plans to replace with a parking ramp for his gym unless Peter can scrape together $50,000 to pay him off.

One of Peter's regulars hits on a solution: Win a national dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas whose prize is precisely the amount Average Joe's needs. The big obstacle: White vows to crush Average Joe's in the tournament with his team of uber-athletes.

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, making his feature-film debut after creating the "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker" character in Reebok ads, maintains an energetic pace that helps keep the one-note premise from turning as rank as a boys' locker room.

Still, the story stretches thin, and among the gags, the clunkers far outnumber the winners. The supporting characters are not terribly imaginative, with White's camp heavy on stoic bruisers and Peter's side packed with flat-chested weanies.

Stiller's wife, Christine Taylor, provides an object of romantic contention for Peter and White as a bank attorney assigned to investigate Average Joe's ledgers. Rip Torn rings some laughs out of a shallow bit part, bellowing and cackling as a wheelchair-bound dodgeball legend whose tough-love coaching whips Average Joe's team into shape.

Alan Tudyk provides scattered chuckles as Steve the Pirate, an Average Joe's member who fancies himself a buccaneer. Blond bombshell Missi Pyle is unrecognizable as a unibrowed Eastern European dodgeball ace on White's team.

Vaughn, who tends to specialize in playing slippery opportunists, is quite likable here, capturing a nice-guy charm without losing his wily edge.

Stiller unfortunately comes off as a nasty cousin to his vain model character Derek Zoolander. White's poofy hair, self-absorption and effeminately measured voice feel like a rehash of Zoolander and any number of other loudmouth gasbags Stiller created for his old sketch-comedy series.

"Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for rude and sexual humor and language. Running time: 91 minutes. Two stars out of four.


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