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You Will Believe a Moron Can Fly: Ben Stiller at his most disturbing in 'Dodgeball.'

Sports Fever

'Dodgeball' pokes fun at the mania for sports, any sports

By Richard von Busack

IT'S NOT what people laugh at that marks them as morons—it's what they cry at. Generous examples of this principle were proved at the "man on the street" comments at the Reagan funeral, including a favorite: "He was like the grandfather I never had." So, yukking it up at Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story should be a guilt-free experience: the film is as full of berserk mayhem as a Three Stooges festival. The miserable playground game is what the young Patches O'Houlihan (Hank Azaria) calls it, during an excerpt from a 1950s American Dodgeball Association of America promotional film: "A game of violence, exclusion and degradation."

Dodgeball's story revels in degradation—the easy, surefire appeal of a chump being beaned by a ball. But the movie always comes down on the right side of the slobs vs. snobs battleground. The loafing hero (Vince Vaughn), is just right for the part. Vaughn has been around the block, after trying sinister leading men, hapless hicks and (a low-water mark) polluting the memory of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. But as a paunchy bum—at last, an Oliver Reed for the USA!—he's at home playing Peter La Fleur, who guzzles Yoo Hoo chocolate beverage and wakes up to his dog nuzzling his genitals.

In a plot point repeated more than thrice, La Fleur needs $50,000 to save his crapshack of a gym, Average Joe's. The building is being sought as a parking lot by White Goodman (Ben Stiller, who is as paroxysmal as the kind of sleazy hustler for whom the 1970s will never die), the villainous owner of rival Globo Gym. Goodman demonstrates his villainy by macking horribly on a banker (the perfectly good Christine Taylor). Fortunately, Peter's pal Gordon (Stephen Root, voice for lovelorn simp Bill Dauterive on TV's King of the Hill) is a regular reader of Obscure Sports Quarterly. He learns that a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas promises exactly the mortgage-lifting amount as first prize.

The team is whipped into shape by the legendary ball hurler Patches O'Houlihan, now an old crock in a wheelchair (and played, in this incarnation, by Rip Torn). And as the team triumphs at Vegas, the sport of sadists is covered on ESPN-8 ("El Ocho!"), where waspy commentator Gary Cole (the boss in Office Space) and drugged-out former jock Jason Bateman provide the commentary on the match, including the comment that the rise of Average Joe's team "has shocked the dodgeball pundits."

While hitting (and lampooning) all the corners of the sports movie, director/writer Rawson Marshall Thurber slows things out when the team suffers its third-act crisis. Is it true that audiences demand the formula? The similar, maybe equally funny Shaolin Soccer managed to get away from the Bad News Bears template a little. But when a real-life sports legend shows up at a key moment to stiffen Peter's spine, it may be apparent why this movie is so particularly funny. When contrasting Vaughn's sloth to the career of one of the great comeback athletes, we see that the movie is saying something unspeakable to our sports-mad nation: striving is overrated, Lance Armstrong is an overachiever and it's all just a stupid game.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (PG-13; 96 min.), directed and written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, photographed by Jerzy Zielinski and starring Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Rip Torn, opens Friday valleywide.

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Web extra to the June 16-22, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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