Ben Stiller is like a guy on the 1919 White Sox. He's rigged to lose. His comedy is the stuff of failure, and sometimes it's pleasurable watching him flit around in funny get-ups, only to have a pretty costar put him down. Funnier -- or, depending on the vehicle he's carrying, sadder -- is when Stiller has no costume at all and is still embarrassed by someone less pretty, like Larry David, who gave him nothing but grief in the most recent season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Stiller will do anything for a laugh, even a garbagey romance such as "Along Came Polly." He'll do anything but win. So the outcome of his agreeable new movie, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," is preordained. But in a remarkable feathered wig (with highlights!) and fake goatee, with chest and arms tight and tanned, Stiller works very hard at telling a slapstick joke on male virility. He plays White Goodman, the owner of Globo Gym, a one-stop, Southern California vanity super-center where you can do chin-ups or get a chin lift. White is trying his hand at Globo expansion, which entails buying out the mortgage of Average Joe's, the sparsely attended gym across the street. (Wasn't this the plot of "Barbershop 2"?)
The owner of Joe's, Pete La Fleur (Vince Vaughn), can save his comparatively primitive fitness haven, which looks like a rec center stuck in a shipping warehouse, if he raises $50,000 in a month. So Pete and his out-of-shape, ragtag crew enter a dodgeball tournament, the cash prize of which is exactly that amount. Just because he can, and because the movie needs to give Stiller (one of the producers) more to do, White enlists his own team, made up of hulking personal trainers with names straight out of "American Gladiators" -- Laser, Blade, even Blazer.
"Dodgeball" is sort of a draggy bore until the game is introduced, about 20 minutes in. But then the "underdog" of the movie's dumb title kicks in, and the performances from character actors such as Stephen Root, Joel Moore, and Missi Pyle start clicking.
This is the first feature written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed those "Terry Tate" Super Bowl spots for Reebok about the linebacker/efficiency expert from hell who plows through an office sacking slacking drones but takes a second to say "Hi" to a co-worker or two. They're some of the funniest ads I've ever seen.
"Dodgeball" is similarly rambunctious when it finally gets to Las Vegas, where the championships are held and broadcast on not-real-yet ESPN 8 -- "the Ocho." The movie heaps on lovely vulgar touches, including a cantina named after an unspeakable sex act and the Average Joe's coach, Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn), who blasts his verbal and physical assaults ("If you can dodge a car, you can dodge a ball!") wearing a leather bomber jacket and zooming around in a wheelchair. The handicapped, the fat, the Asian are fodder for imbecilic punch lines. Everybody else in the movie is entertainingly nuts; the sexy tax attorney, played by Stiller's wife, Christine Taylor, even has a thing for unicorns.
Vaughn applies his lazy-sleazy-macho stylings to the prim Taylor, who appears appalled and intrigued. Vaughn's approach to every part is to mumble, swagger, and look glazed over to make it seem as if the legendary acting career he never had is officially kaput with each new Hollywood movie. He might be the only actor whose entire approach seems based on mid-to-late-career Burt Reynolds. His genius is that he makes losing look cool, where Stiller makes it look like losing.
Wesley Morris can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Written and directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, Stephen Root, Justin Long, Joel Moore, Missi Pyle, Chris Williams, Alan Tudyk, Rip Torn
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 92 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (rude and sexual humor, language)