Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story Review
Dodgeball was something of an unexpected summer hit last year when it casually strolled its way past the one-hundred million dollar mark after just one month of release. Written and directed by the unknown Rawson Marshall Thurber, this may not have been his first feature but it was certainly his first major film and for this he brought together a cast headlined by Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn in a film about grown men playing Dodgeball, a sport usually played in school when the planned activities were rained off. Coupled with some inventive promotional trailers the premise of a group of social outcasts fighting against corporate America using a sport recognised and more importantly, played by tens of millions of people at some point in their lives is in hindsight quite brilliant and something a lot of people gladly paid to see.
Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) is owner and manager of Average Joe's Gym, more of a local dive than fully fledged health and recreational facility where a group of misfits make up the patronage. These include Justin (Justin Long), a male cheerleader too embarrassed to train at his high school gym following a sticky incident, Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk) who dresses appropriately and "garrrs" his way through the film thinking he's a pirate, Gordon (Stephen Root) a family man who seeks shelter from his mail order bride, Owen (Joel David Moore) a general misfit with nowhere better to go and Dwight, a trainer who is fleeing the confines of his previous job at the airport. What they share in common is Average Joe's, an establishment that both defines and accepts them for what they are. La Fleur too is every bit the Average Joe's he runs, someone with no real goals in life meaning little room for failure, yet he is looked up to by every one of his patrons for providing them with the security they need to be themselves.
When this security is threatened by Globo Gym, a corporate chain of health clubs who wish to turn Average Joe's into an auxiliary car park for their neighbouring gym, Dodgeball becomes the solution to their monetary problems with the Las Vegas International Dodgeball Tournament offering a cash prize of $50,000. Which coincidentally is just enough to cover the back payments Average Joe's owes before their mortgage defaults, and reason enough to bother White Goodman (Ben Stiller), owner of Globogym and rival of Peter La Fleur's to form his own team to compete with Average Joe's in the Dodgeball arena.
As White Goodman Stiller delivers a character not that dissimilar to his strange creation found in Zoolander. An incredibly successful man who at the same time is incredibly stupid, unable to master basic social interaction beyond situations under his direct control. As a self-made man (with a little help from daddy's inheritance) Goodman's riches and small yet muscular physique is shown to be the result of years of hard work and discipline, having turned himself from a 600lb giant to the fighting fit public face of a gym whose motto is "Here at Globo Gym we're better than you, and we know it.". This is a guy not comfortable within himself, always putting on a show with his myriad of body clinging leotards, an expandable (via a pump) groin cup and in a recurring gag, the hair of a god, filled with volume, maximum strength and natural mousey brown colours. His attempts at witty retorts are laughable, the results of someone unable to think on his feet and only amusing those on his payroll, leaving everyone else bewildered at the childlike outbursts that ensue. This leads to several wonderful exchanges between the dry and casual La Fleur, and the agitated, oft confused Goodman. The genius of the creation here though is one that turns Zoolander on its head, making him the bad guy, a character who requires less work on the audience’s part and therefore is so much easier to associate with.
Another wonderful creation is Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn), Average Joe’s wheelchair bound coach with a mouth so wicked and filled with stench that it can only be explained by the admitted consumption of his own urine. Having summarised the game via a deft spoof of wartime period school instructional videos in which Hank Azaria takes on the young Patches role, we learn that Dodgeball is a game of violence, exclusion, and degradation, and one that older Patches likes to break down into simple terms. If you can dodge a wrench or moving traffic, then hell, you can dodge a ball! This concept of a game that involves getting hit where it hurts coupled with several unorthodox training methods results in much of the film’s physical comedy, which works on the notion that pain sells and by god is it funny, with some horrifically cruel and violent blows doled out but handled in a way by the actors and director that at the very least couples a wince with a laugh, and usually delivers the laugh first and foremost with satisfying aplomb.
Christine Taylor takes on the role of Kate Veatch, the bank assigned attorney overseeing the Globo Gym buyout of Average Joe's, and inevitable love interest for the competing managers. Literally sickened by Goodman's advances and the underhanded tactics he employs, deploring all forms of humanity that do not meet his vision of peak physical fitness, Kate is lured to the Average Joe's team who can put her formidable throwing arm to good use. Shown to be a grounded, down to earth gal she fits the Average Joe's team perfectly, becoming one of the lads quite effortlessly. But it’s the relationship she shares with White Goodman that really works here, his attempts at asking her out on a date are almost as amusing as her gut-wrenchingly sickened responses, which I think works best (as it did for Zoolander) for members of the audience aware that Taylor is Stiller's wife. It's a common theme in the films they have so far worked on together and one they seem to excel at achieving, offering both a sense of genuine disdain while wryly winking at the audience the whole time.
Split in two halves the film opens strongly, setting up the numerous characters with ease before going on to explain the problem at hand, developing the relationships and securing the love interests while overseeing both the characters and the audiences training in the sport of Dodgeball. For a first time feature-film director Rawson Marshall Thurber does a fine job but really surprises by going one further and delivering an exciting second half which sees the Dodgeball tournament covered by way of character interludes spliced together by ESPN Sports Channel coverage of the actual event. With some lavish production design and thought having gone into the arena, competing teams and coverage which extends to a booth for the Dodgeball dancers, a concept not as far fetched in this day and age as you might initially suspect, the sporting segments are fast paced and well coordinated delivering laughs at every turn complete with some well placed tension that is backed up by an original score straight out of a big budget action movie. The real gems in the latter half of the movie however are the sports commentators who cover the games for ESPN's "The Ocho". These creations - Cotton McKnight and Pepper Brooks - portrayed by Gary Cole and Jason Bateman (TV's Arrested Development) are just hilariously funny, working in both rules of the game and therefore otherwise boring exposition into their wild commentary which is just littered with quotable gems. Cole as McKnight takes the lead in their duo, an experienced broadcaster who talks with passion and imaginative verve for the sport while Bateman as Pepper takes on the young sidekick, an extreme sports enthusiast with a stoner appearance and often poor follow-up to his elders cross over attempts.
Cotton McKnight: "Looks like it's gonna be a two-on-one, a ménage à trois of pain."
Pepper Brooks: "Usually you pay double for that kind of action, Cotton."
The script from director Rawson Marshall Thurber is generally very good, littered with gags which are pepped up by the fine casting and resulting improvisation that stems from this. This same script is also the films ultimate downfall as anything beyond a rollicking good laugh, as it hails from the TV sitcom hall of fame, where every line is taken, developed and fine tuned to guarantee a laugh, with plenty of visual comedy in place to backup any that might fall short. While this means we get a film that is consistently funny, and I really do mean a film that has me in laughter from start to finish several viewings later, it also means the characters and plot devices are very much in place to get the ball rolling. Of the entire cast the only characters with an ounce of development outside the confines of their pursuit to save or destroy Average Joe's is White Goodman, with his overweight background often used to good comical effect, and Justin with his school background firmly in place, reasons for needing Average Joe's honest and a genuine love interest through Amber present and accounted for. The rest of the cast are relatively simple creations with the likes of Steve the Pirate either working for you or not, as his bizarre antics surely wouldn't play outside of the Average Joe's confines and for me really aren't that funny within. This is a real shame because Tudyk is a decent actor and one that could have done more with the role had it been fleshed out, but much like his turn in Firefly he is left on the sidelines rather than being used to greater effect.
All of this could quite rightly be taken as over analysing what is essentially a riotously funny film that has no pretences of being a character drama, something that is even noted by a sly visual joke near the end, with the Deus Ex Machina of the plot clearly labelled on the teams winnings. So on that note it's time for you to put your mouth where their balls are and get stuck into the fun...
The UK Region 2 DVD release of Dodgeball was originally given the subtitle of Uncut Version but is now being released under the label of Extreme Edition. Whatever the name, the version of the film found on the R2 release is different to that found on the R1 edition in a number of ways. Most obvious are the alternative, more extreme uses of language from Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn) with lines such as "Those men and that lesbo out there" changed to the far more amusing "Those men and that muff diver out there" following the first game of the tournament in a conversation with La Fleur. Later we hear him say "It's like watching a bunch of retards trying to fuck a doorknob!" whereas the R1 is toned down to "It's like watching a bunch of retards trying to hump a doorknob!". The most significant change for me however is the extension of a scene, where on the R1 we see Justin leave Amber following the cheerleader finals and it cuts straight to the Dodgeball tournament, but on this extended R2 cut he returns for his movie moment and kisses Amber leaving her dazzled. For me this small moment improves the film considerably, as Justin's character is one of the few who is developed beyond his pursuit in Average Joe's favour.
On to the disc, when you pop this one in your player the new FACT advert plays and can only be skipped with the Chapter Forward button, which then takes us to a 6 minute trailer reel of upcoming Fox theatrical and DVD releases interspersed with commercials for Maltesers. This again can initially only be skipped using the Chapter Forward button, though if you sit out the first trailer for Robots the Menu button then becomes active. All in all these forced trailers are really beginning to annoy and are becoming far too common these days.
Picture and Sound
Presented in 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen the transfer here is everything you would expect from a Hollywood picture released theatrically just last year. It looks wonderful, packed with detail and fine colour reproduction and not a hint of edge enhancement in sight. The only time I noticed any compression problems was one fleeting moment in the Dirty Sanchez bar, where the dim smoky hues combined with bright red bar lighting caused some minor pixellation in the background. Other than that the transfer is absolutely flawless to these eyes.
Audio is handled by a more than capable Dolby Digital 5.1 mix which never packs anything more than some expansive crowd ambience and fine separation across the soundstage, but then in a sporting comedy drama you can hardly expect much else. This serves the original theatrical mix perfectly well and I see little call for anything more.
Through the wonder of Easter Eggs the disc offers a total of three audio commentary tracks combining the talents of director/writer Rawson Marshall Thurber and actors Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. The main track, the one openly selectable from the special features menu and through the aid of the Audio button on your remote features all three in what I have dubbed a 'joke' commentary. This starts with only Thurber and Vaughn present, lamenting Stiller for always being late and being told to go ahead by the audio technicians, saying that Stiller can join in when he arrives and they'll loop in some additional material to create a final track for the disc. Of course this didn't happen, and what starts out as a humorous pastiche mocking the self-appreciating nature of the industry soon descends into a track that features nothing more than staged pig headed bloody mindedness with shallow arguments between all involved, included Stiller when he arrives and the audio technicians who frequently pitch in with suggestions attempting to get the commentary back on track. You might find the self-deprecating humour amusing, Stiller is happy to be shown as a big Hollywood actor with more assistants than he does films under his belt, Vaughn is the perpetually drunk loudmouth who slaps his own back and no one else, while Thurber is the young spoilt rich kid who thinks the films success comes from a result of his work and his work only. After 40 minutes of this they eventually all leave in disgust, with the audio technicians mocking the credibility of the audio commentary saying no one is actually sad enough to listen to them, and so they stick on another commentary track from another Fox/Stiller movie to cover the remaining 45 minutes.
I hated this track; only laughing occasionally in the early stages before the joke overrun its course by some 80 minutes and really failed to see the amusing side to it. Fortunately there are two alternative tracks which can be found on the disc by way of Easter eggs, but I won't ruin the fun of finding these except to say keep pressing those directional buttons on your remote and see what gets highlighted. The first of these once again features all three only this time it’s your traditional commentary track which flows nicely, shows a good camaraderie and offers plenty of insight to the films genesis, development process and shoot. Stories of scenes that never made it, how the cameos were picked and sought out and a few jokes on the Fox commentary guidelines they're supposed to be abiding by make this a pleasant track to sit through.
The second of the hidden commentary tracks sees Thurber return to the booth to provide a solo track where he speaks with enthusiasm over his first feature film. Taking us through the script writing phase and the process of getting the film picked up Thurber naturally concentrates on the more technical aspects of the production, the actors chosen and the performances given, production design and frame composition, costume design and the original score, all aspects are covered without ever going into exhaustively boring depth while he also throws in plenty of compliments to appease the obligatory backslapping percentage these commentaries require. Of the most interest here - as with the joint commentary track - is the notes made on the scripts development during the shoot, and the pointing out of improvisation and suggestions from the cast and crew that improved upon his own work. Indeed Thurber is not opposed to sharing the credit and occasionally points out aspects of the film he would change given the hindsight he has now, which all goes completely against the persona carved out in the joke commentary and carried through to a few other aspects of the disc.
Video based supplements are fairly large in number though ultimately quite low in content. Deleted and Extended Scenes (11:35) features a number of additional segments mostly cut for pacing including one scene involving Justin and Amber which is partially included in the final edit on this DVD. All of the scenes are actually pretty funny with the extended material featuring Ben in his fat suit at the end worth a moment of anyone’s time. Fuckin' Chuck Norris indeed! Optional commentary from Thurber is provided and he uses the time to explain why each sequence was cut. The same can be said for the Alternate Ending (1:18) which sees the movie end on a down beat, with Average Joe's being knocked out of the tournament. Thurber confirms in his solo commentary for the main feature this was something he had originally conceived for the ending, and extends that feeling here on the optional commentary for the alternate ending, though he seems to be playing slightly with the 'spoilt rich boy' persona developed for the main commentary track going so far as to say he walked out on the movie for a week over the decision. A Gag Reel (2:53mins) brings the additional footage to an end and features some choice cuts of the cast improvising, breaking character and screwing up their lines. I always find these reels a good laugh and the same can be said here.
On to the featurettes section you will find Dodgeball Boot Camp (3:28) which looks at the training the actors underwent for the film complete with interviews, clips and footage from the training sessions. Anatomy of a Hit (3:25) sees director Rawson Marshall Thurber examine which parts of the body give rise to the biggest audience reaction when hit with a ball. Justin Long: A Study of Ham & Cheese (3:25) is more of an extended takes session with the actor showing a complete sequence not even found in the film and the complete versions of him receiving hits for the training segment of the movie as promised by Thurber in the commentary tracks. Dodgeball: Go for the Gold (1:21) sees Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn trumpeting Dodgeball as not just a movie, but an example for the Olympic committee as to why Dodgeball should become an Olympic sport. Finally there is some good clean family fun courtesy of More with the Dodgeball Dancers in pink, blue and black complete with introduction by director Rawson Marshall Thurber. Blue is my favourite colour, how about yours? On the whole these featurettes are generally entertaining, with the cast popping jokes whenever possible but given the runtime there is nothing here which even vaguely resembles an in-depth look at the making of process. The extended Dodgeball Dancers segments aside the best of the featurettes is with Justin Long putting his own brand of wiener comedy to the test, and getting some pretty solid laughs along the way.
Along with the aforementioned Easter egg commentary tracks the disc also boasts a few additional video-based Easter egg supplements. These can be found in the usual manner, searching the menu screens for unidentified selectable points. The most prominent egg is Rawson Marshall Thurber III First Time Director (4:30), a small featurette which ties in nicely with the mock persona setup in the joke commentary track, where Thurber sees himself as an auteur, a genius who is doing everything right while everyone else spits venom behind his back, coming to the conclusion he's an asshole. Fake interviews and staged behind-the-scenes footage make this play out well and it’s more successful for me than the commentary track ever is.
The remaining eggs are small unnamed video snippets. The Globo Gym Video-Screen Motivational Ads (2:33) we see on the video monitors of the Globo Gym featuring White Goodman offering words of wisdom to his patrons can be seen here in their entirety, with many variations on those seen in the main feature. Justin frolics with the Bikini Babe Car Washers (0:19) is exactly how it sounds, with raw footage of actor Justin Long having some fun with the girls on set. Alternate Globo Gym Team Intro (0:45) is a deliberate setup featuring an alternate version of the scene with White introducing his team in the Dirty Sanchez complete with an unexpected cousin in the line-up. White Goodman congratulates you on finding all the Easter Eggs (0:11) is again fairly self-explanatory, with Stiller in his fat suit as White Goodman, welcoming you to nerdville in return for discovering all the Easter eggs. Just like the main video-based supplements these are all worth a look but ultimately offer little in the way of substance, but then with a comedy such as Dodgeball maybe it’s better we don't get any serious making-of material.
Finally we have the Inside Look (1:46) feature which comes as an unusual bonus, featuring one of the original Dodgeball promotional trailers created for its theatrical release. This has Stiller and Vaughn in character giving an interview about the tournament and their rivalry. A nice addition to the disc and better than the usual stuff which fills the Inside Look segments, it also makes up for the lack of theatrical trailers present.
It's worth noting that all excised footage from the main feature found in the bonus materials is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and looks pretty rough due to a lack of final colour correction and processing. This is especially shameful for the extended Dodgeball Dancers sequences, with all that fine dance choreography going to waste at such a low video resolution. Subtitles are however present for all bonus features, including Easter eggs and commentary tracks, continuing Fox's good record in this department.
Dodgeball can sit proudly alongside Anchorman as one of the best traditional comedies of last year, adding another feather to Stiller’s already packed cap and suggesting a promising future for its director Rawson Marshall Thurber. I never even got around to mentioning the wide selection of unusual and highly commendable cameos found within the movie, nor did I focus strongly enough on the supporting cast members such as Justin Long or Stephen Root who steal many a scene, but that is what makes Dodgeball such a recommended comedy. There is just so much here to appreciate on repeat viewings that extend beyond the contributions from Stiller, Vaughn, Taylor and Torn, so it never fails to amuse and will be a popular choice alongside Stiller’s best output when you want some guaranteed laughs.