Around the World in 80 Days and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (review)

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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-scale primetime practical jokes on unwitting victims and cheer-it-on vigilantism in which the more inhumane a punishment the hero can mete out, the bigger cheers he gets?
And now even so-called “family entertainment” — an expression I detest; it usually translates as “in trying to throw in something for everyone, we’ve ended up with a product unsuitable for anyone of any age” — is in on it. There’s a disturbing savagery amidst the cotton-candy fluff and Crayola colors of Around the World in 80 Days, and I’m not even talking about the violence done to a classic if now dated film or the wasting of the wonderful Jackie Chan and the brilliant British comic actor Steve Coogan. And never mind the crass and stereotypical depictions of global cultures, including American, British, and Chinese. Nope: It’s the cruel mirth with which the film distributes its comic violence that rankles. You might call this Epcot Center: The Movie, if Goofy and Mickey strolled around the park doling out kicks to the crotch to every third tourist.

Instead of the travelogue of the 1956 film, we get road-movie awfulness. Inventor Phileas Fogg (Coogan: Coffee and Cigarettes, Ella Enchanted) accepts a bet from the Royal Academy for Pomposity or somesuch — headed by Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent: Nicholas Nickleby, Gangs of New York, a bloated caricature of himself) — to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Fogg is a bit of a dolt — only Coogan’s inherent charm saves Fogg from being entirely insufferable — and serves, in the dramatic sense, as the “comic” sidekick to Chan’s (Shanghai Knights, The Tuxedo) Passepartout: Ostensibly Fogg’s valet, he instigates the whole bet as a way to return home to China with a valuable artifact stolen from his village by Queen Amidala– I mean, General Fang (Karen Joy Morris: Shaolin Soccer), who desires it for some evil reason or other.

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-fu melees — the film stops short for them, and they’re barely even integrated into the meager plot — but I’m not complaining about comic violence per se. There’s always been and likely always will be the likes of the Three Stooges poking one another in the eyes, and even though Chan is starting to look exhausted, surely there will always be a place in the movies for amusingly choreographed hand-to-hand combat.

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/love interest they picked up along the way. Fix has clearly had some sort of inexplicable change of heart — perhaps being thrown from a window by your boss will do that — and so now, surely, some sort of sympathy is expected to be extended from the audience toward him. But no: He gets thrown down a flight of stairs and the assembled crowd laughs — laughs — at which time Fogg and Monique, having witnessed this with happy smiles, turn to each other and kiss.

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-of-the-movie satisfied with the resolution of the sexual tension that’s been (barely) building for the last hour and a half? Like so many recent films — see the Hollywood oeuvre of Ben Stiller — Around the World in 80 Days wants to have it both ways, wants to engage our worst, unthinking instincts while also being heartwarming. Sadism and sentimentalism don’t go together in my book. What’s frightening is that they seem to for so many others. How else does one explain such things as Who Wants to Marry My Dad?

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/director Rawson Marshall Thurber has for his characters, even the ones we’re supposed to be cheering on. Much obvious, unfunny fun is poked at the obsession with physical perfection, through health-club mogul White Goodman (Stiller: Envy, Starsky & Hutch) — he’s the villain, a former fattie who now masturbates with pizza and self-inflicts electroshock torture to create an aversion in himself to doughnuts. Oh, ha ha. But the ostensible heroes of this idiotic nonsense are treated no better: the patrons of rundown Average Joe’s gym, conveniently located across the street from Goodman’s mecca to physical fitness, are incontrovertibly losers, and Thurber wants you to laugh at them — not with them, at them: at their physical awkwardness, at their Hollywood-ified ugliness. Later, you will be asked to sympathize with them. Sadism and sentimentality, once again.

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.

Around the World in 80 Days
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG for action violence, some crude humor and mild language
official site | IMDB

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for rude and sexual humor, and language
official site | IMDB

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