Ben Stiller has largely made his fortune via a familiar comedic persona: the well-meaning, awkward young man who gets into an escalating series of misunderstandings. After gaining critical acclaim for the one-season cult show The Ben Stiller Show, he began starring in films and managed to find a bumbling, mumbling groove after a few missteps. Movies like There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents (and various Focker-related sequels), and Keeping the Faith posited him as a lovable schmuck, and it worked. He would make a few brief detours in movies like the bizarre superhero satire Mystery Men (in which his power as Mister Furious was uncontrollable, ineffectual rage) or as the world’s dumbest male beauty in Zoolander, but his successes have largely kept him likable. A major exception is currently in the top ten most-watched movies on Hulu: 2004’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
Dodgeball stars Ben Stiller in one of his rare villain roles, as the sinister, buffoonish White Goodman, proprietor of the slick Globo Gym. His foil (and the ostensible hero of the movie) is Vince Vaughn, owner of Average Joe’s, a gym that appears to have under a dozen members, none of whom appear to understand how exercise equipment works. The plot of Dodgeball is wholly lifted from the archetypes of summer camp/golf club/college fraternity comedies: it’s pure snobs vs slobs, complete with a climactic athletic challenge for all the marbles.
But Dodgeball is not a particularly plot-driven movie. This is a movie that promises you Ben Stiller with a horseshoe mustache and feathered blonde hair, and it does not let its audience down. Dodgeball came right in the middle of the early 2000s “frat pack” comedy genre, led by a pre-political awakening Adam McKay. It is firmly in the heritage of Old School, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Wedding Crashers. Not coincidentally, all of these movies feature Vince Vaughn to some degree. After initially breaking out with Jon Favreau’s indie film Swingers as a hyper-verbal, charismatic sleazebag, Vaughn had pivoted that charisma to dramas like Clay Pigeons and the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho. By the early 2000s, he returned to his roots and as a culture, we all took it for granted that a horny, dead-eyed fast-talker with a caesar cut was the leading man we wanted.
Make no mistake: Dodgeball is a very raunchy, dumb comedy. There are plenty of inflatable crotch jokes. There is a deeply uncomfortable amount of fat-shaming, even in a movie whose ostensible heroes tout a philosophy of body acceptance. There’s Ben Stiller being caught attempting to use a slice of pizza as a self-pleasure aid. There’s also Rip Torn hurling wrenches at Alan Tudyk and Justin Long and throwing out curse after curse after misogynistic/homophobic/misandrist remark. Dodgeball would likely age about as well as Rip Torn’s character if it were not for the sheer cartoonishness of Ben Stiller.
Where Vince Vaughn’s character relies on his laidback, near-total lack of reactivity to come across as an everyman, Ben Stiller plays every moment to the hilt. Even in a movie in which a character spends the majority of the movie convinced he is a pirate for no explained reason and the great Missi Pyle wears space buns and an absurd set of fake teeth to be a Slavic super-athlete, Ben Stiller is over the top. He also gets all of the best lines. Stiller’s comedic timing is as on point in Dodgeball as it has ever been, and he is clearly relishing putting on a hoarse, villainous show as White Goodman. Case in point, the scene in which he laboriously explains the business metaphor behind a painting of himself seizing a bull by the horns to Christine Taylor, pauses a beat and then mentions without explanation that it was also something that actually happened.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was a huge success for Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Whereas Vaughn was in the middle of his golden run of frat pack movies, Stiller had been struggling with some misfires like Envy and Starsky & Hutch. Dodgeball brought in nearly $170 million off a comparatively small budget and did surprisingly well with critics. Rumors of a sequel have circulated for years and a movie this unconcerned with narrative logic could probably slap a plot together in about five minutes. After all, if you can dodge a ball, you can make a Dodgeball sequel.