Dodgeball: A True Underdog Movie

Be it with either a positive or negative connotation, many know dodgeball from their grade-school years. This purely physical game is social strata at its peak. It even became the focus of a minor controversy in 2001, when some parents and school administrators in America’s elementary schools sought to ban the game for this very reason. As Neil Williams, a professor of physical education at Eastern Connecticut State University, told the Chicago Tribune in 2001, dodgeball “encourages the best to pick on the weak and to be glorified for picking on the weak.” Nowhere can you find the root of the central theme in sports films than here.

Well, the sport finally gets its due next summer with “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Movie” and, with such ripe material, the script for this effort shines. The film – which will star Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller – is a solid effort that rises above a number of other comedies released in the recent past. It also satirizes the increasingly-ridiculous fitness craze, in particular the atmosphere, decor and the classes now being offered by gyms. Stripping classes set to a physical work-out? Check, that’s here. Cowboy cardio? Also included here. Carb injections with a suffocated kumquat or a wheat germ enema? If you desire, also tick a check next to that box on the survey. This look at dodgeball far surpasses the “South Park” episode that also focused on the sport. Somehow, “Dodgeball” manages to mix smart social commentary with the physical humor, always a hard trick to pull off. I say all this of a film that focuses on a war between two neighboring gyms, leading to both entering into a national dodgeball tournament— Shenanigans, you say?

Not all of the comedy works here, but this has to be one of the most amusing screenplays I’ve read in a while— the last being another Stiller project, January’s “Along Came Polly,” by the whimsical John Hamburg. But even this is leagues above that script, albeit in an entirely different vein. Heck, it even has a pirate among its protagonist leads, and those seem to be in nowadays.

This script review includes major plot points to “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Movie.” Read at your own risk.

The Plot

The film begins with a commercial for Globo Gym, otherwise known as the touch-up spot for the strong. “Tired of the same old your,” asks the narrator. “Tired of being out-of-shape and out-of-luck with the opposite sex? Tired of being overweight and under-attractive? Well, suffer the shame and embarrassment of yourself no longer!”

The film then introduces our antagonist, White Goodman, the overly tan owner of the gym, who sports a feathered, highlighted lion’s mane of hair, as well as a handlebar moustache and a soul patch. “Here at Globo Gym,” he says, “we understand that ‘ugliness’ and ‘fatness’ are genetic disorders, much like baldness or necrophilia. And it’s only your fault if you don’t hate yourself enough to do something about it. That’s where we come in…just think of Globo Gym as your one-stop shame reduction center.” Of course, as he is saying all this, Goodman (to be played by Stiller) passes by beautiful people walking on treadmills in a setting described “as more of a techno club than a gym,” all talking on cell phones.

The camera pulls back, and we realize that we’ve seen this commercial through the eyes of Peter LaFleur (Vaughn) at a nearby corner store. Handsome in a thrift-store sort of way, he owns the “little gym across the corner” from Globo, Average Joe’s. Just like on the NBC series, “Average Joe,” the gym is populated by those who you would be unwelcome at Globo Gym. They are the overweight, the odd, the unpopular. They are the not-so-beautiful people. There’s teenager Justin, who wants to join the cheerleading squad to prove he’s not a loser; the Tweedledee and Tweedledum team known as Owen and Dwight, the latter a failed Globo Gym trainer trainee; Gordon, the resident sports nut, who possesses a Cliff Claven-like memory; and Steve the Pirate, a one-joke entity who dresses and talks like a pirate.

And, just as we meet the regulars of the gym, Peter is told by his bank’s lawyer, Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor), that the title to the gym has been bought in foreclosure by its across-the-street competitor. Being told that the default warnings he received were more than that, he’s told by Kate that Average Joe has only 30 days to come up with $50,000. “Personal check alrightr,” asks Peter. “If you could wait until the first of the month to cash it, though…”

After trying to plead his case with Whiteman, in which he is soundly blown off, Peter and the regulars unsuccessfully attempt to put together a carwash to raise cash; this effort puts them even more in the red. And then Gordon comes up with a masterful plan, that they enter into the national dodgeball tournament, whose purse is the exact amount they need to pay off the bank: $51,327.23. But first they have to qualify in a sub-region qualifier match, where they go up against a team of Girl Scouts. The Girl Scouts win handily, but are disqualified when one of their players tests positive for steroids. Although they’ve now qualified for the Las Vegas tournament, they’re horrible; Dwight puts it in perspective after the match by saying “We just got our a**es handed to us by a bunch of 11-year-old girls.”

Realizing what Average Joe’s is trying to do, Globo Gym puts together their own team, made up of players with names like Blade, Laser, Blazer and Fran Stalinofskivich. In a blacktop parking lot outside the bar where the team celebrates its earlier “victory,” the two teams face off; Average Joe’s is slaughtered.

In steps the wheelchair-bound Patches O’Houlihan, captain of the 1936 Olympic dodgeball team and 7-time All Star for the American Dodgeball Association of America (not a misprint). A spectator to the Globo Gym-Average Joe’s match and previously seen in a 1947 video that taught the Average Joe’s team the basics of the sport, he teaches them the sport and acts as their coach. And they find a new player in Kate, who has since warmed to Peter.

For three weeks he trains them, and subjects them to the “dodgeball obstacle course,” described as “part Rube Goldberg wet-dream, part Indiana Jones’ booby trap.” Patches’ theory is that if they can dodge wrenches and dodgeballs set aflame, then they can dodge anything thrown at them on the court.

After Kate reveals her admiration of Peter for not charging anyone membership for his gym, when he visits her home and they get to know each other better, it’s off to Vegas. Imagining the action taking place on an enclosed indoor lacrosse-like field, the teams they are up against are formidable. And they get their team uniform, although what is delivered is different from what they ordered, as they are forced to play their first match in S&M paraphernalia.

The final act is perhaps the brightest of the script, for its twists, turns and physical action, lit up by the adversaries they are up against in the national tournament. The presence of two clueless announcers and Lance Armstrong also enhance this act. And we get to see the magic of sudden death dodgeball, the sport’s overtime.

My Thoughts

Rawson Marshall Thurber, who wrote the screenplay and is directing the film, is not a name known to the moviegoing public, but he was the mastermind behind Reebok’s Terry Tate advertisements, which began airing earlier this year. What he was able to accomplish in the short form of 30- and 60-second bursts there carries over amazingly well to a 114-page screenplay. Because the former commercial director throws in many a cut-away, I have more faith in Thurber’s abilities than I would with another first-time feature director.

Should the film stick to the same zany tone that Stiller’s “Zoolander” exhibited – and this was also shown in Thurber’s Reebok commercials — I believe we’re looking at a big sleeper for summer 2004. The simple premise works, but it’s the bells and whistles here that make this script a gem.

There are weaknesses within the script, however, as Thurber would be wise to give it a quick touch-up in order to make it a little tighter overall. Early in the third act, there is the death of one central character (think “Happy Gilmore”) that is a bit jarring – as it perhaps is supposed to be – but it feels dreadfully out of place and a little derivative. And some of the supporting roles, those of the team beside Peter and Kate, could certainly be fleshed out beyond their one-dimensional characters. Additionally, I’m sure the International Dodgeball Foundation might have something to say about the changes in the rules made here from those found in its rulebook.

But I’m not too worried, as the script is a great read that should transfer easily to celluloid. The rest of the talented cast includes Jon Voight, Stephen Root, Alan Tydyk, Justin Long and Christopher Williams. Reportedly, filming has recently wrapped after starting in October, and the film has been given a June 25, 2004 release date.

There are a dearth of funny scenes to be found here, especially any of those involving Stiller’s Whiteman. It should be extremely interesting to see the interplay between Goodman and Kate, in which the latter fends off the other’s numerous amorous advances, as the actors are married in real life. Her scenes opposite his nasty character should be extremely fun to watch, sort of an anti-“Gigli.” Also great is the interplay between Goodman and his gym’s second-in-command, Me’shell, which plays like something out of an “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” skit, as well as the education tape on dodgeball shown early in the film and the dodgeball obstacle course.

Bottom line: This is a funny, funny script and one which I can’t wait to catch an advance look of on cinema screens. Beware the “Dodgeball,” in the most positive use of the term. Written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, this July 18, 2003 version of the screenplay is listed as a revised draft and titled here as “Underdogs,” the project’s former name. On the screenplay’s cover page, it says the script is inspired by Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” which we’re guessing is meant to be taken as tongue in cheek.

Rating: A-