Cruel and Usual
Where did this come from all of a sudden, organized humiliation, both physical and psychological, as American bloodsport? Cruelty is undoubtedly an inherent human quality, but how did we get to a point at which we, as a culture, celebrate it, revel in it? Far be it from me to suggest that crude and brutish “entertainment” is a root cause of grinning grunts leading prisoners around on dog leashes — I’m of the school that movies and TV reflect the culture more than inspire it — but it hardly seems like satire to suggest that we’re on the verge of Survivor: Guantanamo or Who Wants to Run Abu Ghraib? How did we get to grand-
And now even so-
Instead of the travelogue of the 1956 film, we get road-
It doesn’t matter. It’s all an excuse to walk the perimeter of Epcot Center — oh look, there’s the Eiffel Tower(TM)!; ha ha, isn’t China(TM) funny with its stupid bucktoothed peasants! — and indulge in celebrity cameos you won’t know, like Richard Branson and Macy Gray; cameos you won’t care about, like Rob Schneider (as a crude bum, hardly a stretch for him) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (absolutely dreadful as a Turkish prince); and cameos from people who look tired and embarrassed to be there, like Sammo Hung and John Cleese. (Only one cameo genuinely amused me, and it involved Owen Wilson and his casual charisma.)
There’s no question that World would have been an assault to the senses without the meanness, but that’s certainly the worst of it. Of course there are countless, endless kung-
And there’s the difference. From the Stooges to Chan (the good stuff, anyway), the humor comes from the balletic choreography — it was never Hey, look at that bad guy squirming in excruciating pain! but Hey, look at how the good guy moved there! There may have been little empathy for the punched bad guy, but neither was there an invitation to take sadistic enjoyment in his (presumed) suffering, either.
But World isn’t really a Jackie Chan movie. The totality of director Frank Coraci’s prior experience is basically Adam Sandler movies, and that’s pretty much what this is, plus kung fu. Plus countless crotch injuries played up for your entertainment pleasure: boiling water to the crotch, kicks, rope burns, even symbolic castrations (an arrow lands in the crotch of a painted portrait of one character).
But the one bizarre juxtaposition that I’m actually haunted by comes right at the end of the film. Inspector Fix (Ewen Bremner: The Reckoning, The Rundown, the poor man) has been chasing Fogg and Passepartout around the planet, hired by Lord Kelvin to stop them from winning the bet, and he endures much abuse along the way. When he returns to London, having failed in his task, Kelvin throws him out a window from several stories up. Wait, there’s more: Fix — who survives, of course — now covered in bandages, half his body encased in casts, comes to cheer on the arrival of Fogg, Passepartout, and Monique (Cécile De France), the French gal/
So, are we meant to be keeping an emotional distance from the slapstick of a man being grievously injured again, or are we meant to be feeling all warm and end-
A kick in the balls
Speaking of Ben Stiller…
If “organized humiliation” is the hottest subgenre of comedy, then Dodgeball: The Movie was inevitable. All the pain of the schoolyard, now a major motion picture! “Dodgeball is a sport of violence, exclusion, and degradation,” says pro dodgeballer Patches O’Houlihan in a 1950s “educational” film that explains the fundamentals of the sport to our moronic heroes. But anyone who went to elementary school knows that already. Even as a kid — one of the dorky ones who couldn’t play dodgeball to save her life — I wondered why adults would allow such ritualistic barbarism to occur with official sanction, though now I suspect that even the gym teachers held the unathletic kids in nothing but contempt.
And contempt is, naturally, what writer/
The overcooked dichotomy of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story — people may be either total failures as human beings or automatons programmed for airbrushed perfection — is, ironically, undercut by the best thing about the film: Vince Vaughn (Starsky & Hutch, Old School) as Peter La Fleur, the owner of Average Joe’s. Vaughn, with his deadpan conviction giving Peter a kind of cynical resignation to the inequalities of the world, is so much better than this crap that it pains you to realize that if the poor guy wants to work, he’s stuck with stuff like this, because there’s just not that much material around as smart as he is… at least not that’s getting produced. Not that Dodgeball would have worked if it was 100 percent cartoonish, as opposed to how Vaughn brings the cartoonishness down to 95 percent, but he simply makes the wild unevenness of the film’s tone all the more obvious.
Almost as good as Vaughn is Alan Tudyk (Hearts in Atlantis, A Knight’s Tale) as Steve, the Average Joe’s patron who thinks he’s a pirate. Unfortunately, the fervor and the certainty of Tudyk’s performance is not matched by the script, which not only has no clue what Steve’s deal is but can’t even make effective use of a guy who thinks he’s a pirate.
And that’s the overarching problem right there: Dodgeball is absurd without being absurdist, preposterous but pointlessly so. It exists, apparently, only so that a now elderly and crotchety Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn: Welcome to Mooseport, Men in Black II; Hank Azaria: Along Came Polly, America’s Sweethearts, plays the younger version) can throw wrenches — hardware tools, that is, not figurative ones — at the Average Joes in their training for the dodgeball open that is going to win them the money they need to fend off a takeover of the gym by Whiteman. Wrenches to the head, to the chest, and yes, to the crotch. For the numerous opportunities to denigrate women who are into sports as lesbians, as if straight women don’t like to play, as if there’s something inherently despicable about homosexuality. For people to toss off lines like “prepare to be humiliated on cable television” — something of an oxymoron, of course. The motto of the Average Joe’s dodgeball team is “Aim low.” And the movie does, too.