Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

Both the math geek and the word dork in me get irritated by the use of "Lowest Common Denominator" as a perjorative. After all, as we all remember from elementary school, the LCD is what you find in order to add fractions. It makes it possible to bring these things together! A comedy that appeals to the "lowest common demominator" should, then, be one that appeals to a wide audience; that is inclusive. It should contain things that make everybody laugh, like pirate jokes, terrible sports announcers, and men getting clobbered by balls hitting their testicles or heads at high speed.

Now, obviously, those things are not, in an of themselves, funny. Okay, maybe pirate jokes are. But the others are, in fact, extraordinarily tough to do well. The slapstick that makes up much of this movie's humor is perhaps the most difficult thing to do well in entertainment; it's the sort of thing where being off by a quarter of a second can be the difference between near-uncontrollable laughter and revulsion at the movie's cruelty. Chuck Jones was said to have calculated how long Wile E. Coyote should fall off a cliff down to the frame for maximum humor value. That writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber gets it right roughly once every two minutes in this ninety minute movie shows some pretty amazing comedy skills.

He has a strong cast to work with. While Ben Stiller is probably the only true big name involved, and chews scenery with abandon as idiot villain White Goodman, star Vince Vaughn is at his sardonic best as Pete LaFleur, the laid-back, responsibility-avoiding owner of "Average Joe's" gym. I honestly don't think I've ever enjoyed Vaughn this much in a leading role before. Christine Taylor is the closest thing to a weak link; though she's got little funny to do other than react to being hit on. Not that any of the characters are more than a centimeter or so deep; they've just been paired with actors who are ideally suited for the roles: Rip Torn is a nasty old bastard, Justin Long is a dorky high-schooler, Stephen Root is a timid weirdo, Missi Pyle (who, someday, will have a good part with actual dialogue) is the intimidating but goofy amazon. And, in a closer-coming-out-of-the-bullpen bit of hilarity, Gary Cole and Jason Bateman elevate the film's last half hour to comedy genuis as perhaps the funniest sports play-by-play team ever.

Yes, ever. The movie is a standard team-overcomes-odds-and-inner-demons-to-save-their-whatever plot, which must culminate in a Big Game. Here, many sports comedies can get too serious, and while that's not terribly likely to happen in a movie about grown men playing dodgeball, Cole and Bateman offer just dead-on parody, straight-faced enough to sound real but absurd enough for the punchlines to score. This portion of the movie is filled with some perfect cameos, too, which I won't spoil here (avoid the IMDB entry until you've seen the movie, for that matter); they're likely much funnier if you don't know they're coming.

This movie is ruthlessly edited. That's to be expected, because timing is so critical in a slapstick comedy, but it's difficult not to notice that a couple of characters practically disappear toward the end, hinting at subplots that were cut out for one reason or another (which drops the pirate-joke percentage sadly down). This does, however, keep the running time down in the ninety-minute range, which means there's not enough time for the wafer-thin characters to really get annoying, for the three or four bits that it's milking to get too repetitive, or for the basically absurd idea to wear out its welcome.

Dodgeball is a lowest-common denominator movie, but in the good sense (adding fractions, rather than subtracting them). Its jokes are broad, but well-executed. It aims for the very biggest, most primal laughs it can, and for the most part hits its target.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Any movie with Gary Cole in it is designed for the LCD.

Garbage is garbage.