by Marty Demarest

Oh hell, more Ben Stiller. It seems as though every manufactured comedy that studios fling into movie theaters these days stars either Stiller or one of his friends. If possible, both. It's not Stiller that's the problem. It's that comedies seem to require characters like the ones he specializes in - neurotic, simmering maniacs - in order to be funny at all.

In Dodgeball, Stiller plays White Goodman, the ultimate in steroid-induced arrogance and hyperventilation. Goodman is the owner of Globo Gym, an organization whose slogan is "We're better than you, and we know it!" Globo Gym, in the process of expanding, wants to add a new parking annex for its members, and has set its sights across the street on the space occupied by Average Joe's Gym. This setup gives Stiller plenty of room for freaking out (which he does); but then every comedy these days has Ben Stiller freaking out.

Fortunately, Dodgeball also stars Vince Vaughn as Peter LaFleur, the nice-guy owner of Average Joe's. Peter has an easygoing smile for everyone, and seems to spend most of his time having heart-to-hearts with his clients. (He's so empathetic that his overdue DVD rentals include Mona Lisa Smile.) LaFleur is a caricature, just like Goodman. But by relying on both of them, Dodgeball is able to cover more satiric ground. It would have been easy to make Goodman the butt of the film's ultimate joke. But LaFleur opens the way for the jocks from Globo Gym to go head to head with an equally ridiculous enemy: the freaks from Average Joe's.

On that side of the street, we find people such as the glasses-wearing schlub who's in love with a mail-order bride who despises him. There's the scrawny teen trying to impress the girl of his dreams on the cheerleading squad. There's even a guy who thinks he's a pirate. Their plan to save Average Joe's by entering a dodgeball tournament ensures that there's enough randomness in Dodgeball to make it funny, but not enough originality to turn it into a cult classic.

For every joke that falls flat or feels old, there are two that work. Sometimes they're unexpected, such as the moment when Stiller is discovered playing with pizza in his office. Other jokes - the homo-erotic gym culture and most of the sexual jokes - are familiar but pulled off gamely. Blink-and-miss-it jokes abound, from a bar named "The Dirty Sanchez," to a how-to-play-dodgeball filmstrip produced by "Uber-American Instructional Films." Dodgeball is even weird enough to include both William Shatner and David Hasselhoff. Clearly, first-time director Rawson Marshall Thurber has high standards for lowbrow comedy.

Which brings us to Dodgeball's greatest strength: once it makes it clear that nothing fits into the film that isn't a stereotype, it's free to be as mean as possible. Because whether you want to admit it or not, the sight of anyone being nailed with a big red ball is usually quite funny.

Publication date: 06/24/04

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