For a while, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was known simply as Underdogs, but whoever decided to change the name had the right idea. This is a movie pitched only to people who find the idea of a movie about dodgeball instantly hilarious. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber has gathered together a team of talented comedic actors for his first film and given them one joke to stretch to feature-length. That joke? "It's a movie about dodgeball."
There are worse jokes, and certainly worse people to trust it with than Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. An unflappable straight man, Vaughn plays the owner of Average Joe's, a failing, low-pressure gym that has the misfortune of being located next to Stiller's high-tech, high-energy facility. (Services include a plastic-surgery "shame-reduction center.") Faced with bankruptcy, Vaughn and some oddball clients (including a meek Stephen Root) decide to enter a dodgeball tournament. Aided by wheelchair-bound '40s dodgeball legend Rip Torn, they eventually find themselves facing Stiller and a team of dodgeball ringers in Las Vegas.
Dodgeball has its share of laughs. In a funny training montage, Torn puts his "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball" motto into action, while Gary Cole and Jason Bateman have some nice moments as anchors for ESPN 8 ("The Ocho"). There's some painful stuff, too. Playing another send-up of deluded masculinity (which is what he does when he isn't playing timid neurotic types), Stiller goes over the top and then just keeps going, and the joke grows thinner with each scene. Though the film returns to Alan Tudyk again and again as if mining comic gold, his turn as a gym rat who thinks he's a pirate remains more puzzling than funny. But mostly, Dodgeball just feels off—never consistently funny, but also never dire. It's as if Thurber resigned himself to making a dumb, formula-bound movie with a dusting of smart gags instead of a smart movie in dumb-movie clothes. If the world needed a less-satisfying companion piece to BASEketball, it need wait no longer.