Cast in the same mold as Old School and Starsky & Hutch, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is another entry in the burgeoning line of formulaic studio comedies in which jokes about groins and gays are paired with insincere lessons about standing up to the bullies of the world and learning to love yourself. Vince Vaughn is Peter La Fleur, the wiseass slacker owner of Average Joe’s Gym, a dilapidated exercise joint situated directly across the street from crazed fitness freak White Goodman’s (Ben Stiller) high-tech Globo Gym. Borrowing far too many plot twists from Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore, Dodgeball revolves around the big-haired Goodman’s plans to buy out La Fleur’s crummy gym unless the businessman can come up with $50,000 in three days. With the help of his freak-show clientele (including a nerd who dreams of being a cheerleader and a dork who thinks he’s a pirate), a cute lawyer (Christine Taylor’s Kate Veatch), and a wacko former star athlete as their coach (Rip Torn’s excruciatingly lame Patches O’Houlihan), La Fleur enters the Las Vegas International Dodgeball Open, a glitzy tournament broadcast on ESPN 8 (amusingly referred to as “The Ocho”) in which grown men play a child’s game for a rabid extreme-sports hungry crowd.
Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s debut fills out its standard-issue David versus Goliath story with endless shots of guys getting viciously pummeled in the face and crotch by red rubber balls, and, in accordance with the genre’s rules and regulations, subscribes to a frat boy homophobia in which men are laughed at for appearing gay (Goodman, who loves to awkwardly pat his teammates behinds and wears tight gray jumpsuits with inflatable crotch support, is the prime butt of these jokes), but women are celebrated for being interested in bisexual action. Jason Bateman nails the stoner idiocy of X-Gamers as a former Dodgeballer-turned-moronic commentator, but the film—taking a cue from Team Average Joe’s motto “Aim Low”—squanders its opportunity to skewer America’s opposing fixations on exercise and eating by shooting for easy lowbrow targets like masturbation, pole-dancing strippers, and tired stereotypes (competing Dodgeball teams are “The Lumberjacks” and the “Kamikazes”).
Thurber seems oblivious to the hypocrisy of mocking our image-conscious society while simultaneously making fun of the film’s oddball loser characters. To pad out his less-than-one-joke film, the director employs a grab bag of celebrity walk-ons, and it’s surprising to find that one—a late-inning pep talk about not quitting from a certain cancer-free Tour de France winner—actually has something to do with the film’s never-say-die message. Still, there’s no dodging the fact that stooping to random cameos by David Hasselhoff, William Shatner, and Chuck Norris for worthless non sequiturs is the filmmaking equivalent of a comedic forfeit.