The title of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) may be a little misleading. The events depicted in this strangely still funny film did not actually happen. ESPN the Ocho is not real. The subtitle, though, is not a lie. It actually is an “underdog story.” Sports films tend to lend themselves more easily to such themes. As a fan of the Chicago Cubs, until recently I had been rooting for a team that was more likely to fail than not. Even if you do not pull for the Northsiders, there is something within many of us that wants to see the long downtrodden finally make it to the top. The United States is a country of long shots, from the American Revolution all the way up to the Moon Landing and beyond. Toss in the hammy performance of Ben Stiller as White Goodman, megalomaniac owner of the master race of work out facilities that is Globo Gym, and the wisecracking of his competitor across the street at Average Joe’s, Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn), and you have the recipe for comedy gold that still holds up today.
The opening montage of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story focuses on Globo Gym, where they know they are better than you. Juxtapose that with Average Joe’s owner Peter, who brushes his teeth with Yoohoo Chocolate Drink and drives a car that needs to be pushed the rest of the way to his gym. His clientele is an assortment of people who come there not seeking perfection, but acceptance. There is Peter’s assistant, Dwight (Chris Williams), who cannot abide working as a luggage handler at the airport; the clueless in love (and most everything else) towel boy Owen (Joel David Moore); the eternally stressed-out Gordon (Stephen Root); the skinny and well-meaning high schooler Justin (Justin Long); and to top it all off, Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk). No, this film is not set in the eighteenth century. Steve acts, talks, and dresses like a pirate . . . in the twenty-first century. Peter is tolerant of this odd group, an attitude that extends to him being lax about collecting membership fees, paying bills, or doing anything else to run a successful business. Sensing an opportunity, White enlists the help of his bank in order to begin foreclosure procedures on Average Joe’s and make it into a parking lot for Globo Gym. In turn, they send a lawyer, Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor), to go over Average Joe’s paperwork. This news is not necessarily a shock to Peter, but his clients take it hard. They must come up with $50,000 in the next thirty days or be forced to close. In discussing this, obscure sports enthusiast Gordon informs the Average Joe’s group that one possible solution would be for them to enter and win a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas where the prize is conveniently the same amount that Peter owes the bank. Not convinced it will work but going along with it anyway, Peter officially agrees to form an Average Joe’s team. They are not the most athletic group, and the only reason they are allowed advance to the tournament after their disastrous defeat to a Girl Scout team in their regional qualifier is because one of the girls tested positive for anabolic steroids and beaver tranquilizers. I am not making that up. Enter dodgeball legend Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn), who shows up at Average Joe’s in order to train Peter’s team to be better players. His techniques mainly involve dodging wrenches Patches throws at them, and traffic, but I guess it is something. They also discover that Kate, a former softball player, can throw a dodgeball quite well. This revelation worries White, who has been spying on Average Joe’s, and has decided to form his own dodgeball team with a bunch of ringers. He also attempts to woo Kate by ineptly having her fired from her job. If she had been noncommittal about playing before, her revulsion of White makes her mind up for her, and she joins the Average Joe’s going to Las Vegas. Once there, they start winning. So, too, does the Globo Gym team. And, of course, they are fated to meet in the final. Still, the Average Joe’s are undeterred by the prospect of playing the more athletically gifted Globo Gym team until Patches is tragically crushed by a marquee in the casino. Peter also takes a $100,000 pay-off from White for Average Joe’s, thus ensuring the outcome for White either way. Peter is about to give up and abandon his team when he receives a hilariously shaming pep talk from Lance Armstrong (as himself). Returning to his team, Peter and White eventually face off against one another in a sudden death solo match. Peter wins, and as he and his team collect the prize, he reveals that he took White’s money and put it all on a bet for the Average Joe’s to win at fifty to one odds. He then uses that money to buy out White from his own gym, leaving White to slink off in defeat.
There is a lot of crude humor in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. There are many sex jokes. There is also some unfortunate fat shaming. This is about as dated as the material has gotten, so far. Yet, as I covered at the outset, the story easily lends itself to what is contained in the subtitle. You root for the Average Joe’s, and that bit of naming is no accident. Bear with me here, but in thinking about this movie, my Catholic mind went to what was perhaps the original underdog story: David and Goliath. If you are reading this blog as a non-believer and need a refresher, just know that it is a Biblical story of a young David, before he becomes king of Israel, slaying the Philistines’ finest warrior, Goliath. David triumphs with a sling and a stone, as opposed to the fine armor of the mighty Goliath. It is a great story, and you can read it for yourself in the First Book of Samuel. It bears noting as well that, Biblically speaking, David is an archetype for Jesus. Indeed, when the Israelites conceived of the coming Messiah, they thought he would be in the mold of David, a warrior king who would restore Israel’s rightful place. God, as usual, has different plans. David himself did not come from royal roots, and when the prophet Samuel is sent by God to find God’s anointed, Samuel has to wade through several brothers to get to David, the youngest. God does this to bring low the haughty, just like having the boy slay the man with sling and stone. This theme is carried on to Jesus who, among other things, was essentially born in a barn. Now, to be clear, I am not saying the film is meant to be allegorical. Just because David and Goliath can claim primacy does not mean that every story that comes after it is copying it. While watching it, though, if you are worried about some of the rather irreverent content, just know that it has the right people winning. Any movie that does that is worth something.
I am guessing most of you reading this have seen Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. I wonder how many of you remember that there is a subtitle? There is a lot of content in it that I would not be showing to younger audiences, even though it is rated PG-13. Yet, I chose to focus on what gives the movie its heart. That is what God asks of us, to see into the heart of the matter. It is not perfect, but it is still pretty funny.