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Posted: Tuesday, July 13th 2004 at 11:22am

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story ****1/2

By by Bill Wilson
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Bill Wilson
One of the great mysteries of Mars and Venus is the relative inability of the majority of our planet's female inhabitants to appreciate the anarchy and violent mayhem of the Three Stooges. Yet I saw many of those same ladies at Movies 400 laughing right along with their testosterone-charged dates at "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story."

Ben Stiller ("Starsky & Hutch") may ostensibly be the star of the film, but it's emotional center is Vince Vaughn, nicely underplaying the role of neighborhood good-guy Peter La Fleur. Peter runs "Average Joe's Gymnasium," a run-down community center that's seen better days and is on the verge of foreclosure.

Peter doesn't see the need to worry about things like rent payments and utility bills, so as a result, his business and life are both a shambles. The bank sends Kate Veach (Christine Taylor, a.k.a. Mrs. Stiller) to begin foreclosure proceedings. It seems that millionaire physical fitness guru White Goodman (Stiller) wants to buy the gym just so that he can add parking for his existing facility. Goodman is an arrogant boor, a cartoon character of everything that's nasty about all of mankind.

Peter's clientele is the downtrodden; the high schooler (Justin Long, playing essentially his "Ed" role of Warren Cheswick); the nerd with a fascination for "almost sports" trapped in a loveless marriage (the chameleonic Stephen Root); Steve (Alan Tudyk), who dresses and behaves like a pirate, for really no good reason; and a few other generic losers. To them, "Joe's" isn't just a gym; it's their home. And they're willing to do anything it takes to raise the fifty grand to protect it from buyout.

"Dodgeball" really hits its stride with the introduction of the sport's Knute Rockne, Patches O'Houlihan, played to the hilt by the ever-reliable Rip Torn. For reasons never quite explained (thankfully), the rubber-ball guru takes the "Average Joe"s under his wing and proceeds to show them the ropes, along with Kate, who's been won over by this unlikely gang of misfits and her disgust for White. She's the ringer, after years of playing fast-pitched softball.

What follows is a festival of inspired slapstick as the "Joe"s make their way through teams of girl scouts, lumberjacks and sumo wrestlers on their way to the top.

Gary Cole lends his considerable talents to the proceedings as the lead play-by-play announcer for ESPN 8, "the ocho." Beyond that, I won't spoil the delicious surprises in store for you as the film gleefully revels in a slew of celebrity cameos, each one nuttier than the previous. Including a stellar performance by a certain young lead actor from "Arrested Development" who mysteriously goes without a screen credit at the beginning of the film.

"Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" has very few storyline surprises. Indeed, it is amusing in the same way as a Road Runner cartoon. But let's face it. Road Runner cartoons are hysterical! So is this film. And don't be surprised if Dodgeball makes a comeback as a legitimate sport. Hey, it's already got a time slot on the newly revamped GSN, formerly known as Game Show Network. Who knew?
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