Several times in "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn), the underachieving owner of a dilapidated gym called Average Joe's, gives his friends a quick wink. It's so quick, in fact, that it almost seems like a facial tick. Did he just wink? You think he did. But you're not quite sure.
I left "Dodgeball" in a similar state of doubt. Did that movie just wink at me? I think it did. But I'm not quite sure.
Here's why. The film follows one of the most hackneyed comedic story lines out there: ragtag, hapless misfits being bullied by villainous corporate personalities and fighting back and winning against all odds. These types of films — the better ones starred Bill Murray — flourished in the early '80s in a kind of "Rocky"-meets-"Animal House" synthesis.
In the beginning of "Dodgeball," for example, LaFleur wakes up on the couch, gargles with Yoo-hoo, and learns that his water and power are being turned off. It's an homage to Murray in "Stripes," and Vaughn has a similar kind of unaffected, cushiony charm.
At his gym, he greets misfits both classic (the high-school nerd in love with the unattainable cheerleader) and outré (a guy who thinks he's a pirate). The bad guys are across the street in a chain called Globo Gym, run by former fatty, and current bully, White Goodman (Ben Stiller, at his over-the-top best).
Of course Average Joe's is delinquent on its payments and Globo Gym wants to bulldoze them under with the help of shapely banker Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor). Joe's needs $50,000 to survive. But how can it raise the money? Why, a dodgeball tournament! The finals are to be held in Las Vegas and broadcast on ESPN 8: The Ocho.
The rest of the story writes itself. Clumsy beginnings. Being schooled by the grizzled veteran (Rip Torn). The possible romance. The tournament. The odds. Overcoming them! But wait. The final temptation of the protagonist. His possible betrayal? Could it be? No. Because of the inspirational speech. The return of the hero. Et cetera.
In a story structure this hackneyed, most comedians — Mike Myers, say — would give us at least one broad wink to let us know that he knows. First-time writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber does something more daring. He plays it straight.
The in-joke — the slight wink I thought I saw — is in the sheer absurdity of its content. Salvation through dodgeball? Steve the Pirate? The best joke may be the cameo by the guy who delivers the inspirational speech — whose real-life story is actually so inspirational as to be almost absurd — and whom the protagonist just happens to run into at an airport bar.
Maybe it's a subtle difference I'm talking about. Mike Myers, and most "Saturday Night Live" alumni, appear to be poking fun at Hollywood's lesson-learning, love-conquering-all story lines when they're actually embracing them wholeheartedly. "Dodgeball" appears to be embracing such a story line when it's actually poking fun at it.
Look for the wink.
Erik Lundegaard: email@example.com