Some years back, New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty condemned the flashy, enjoyably trashy action flick “La Femme Nikita” with a single memorable sentence: “The end of French cinema as we know it.” I filed the judgment away with a laugh, chalking up Rafferty’s condemnation to high-art snobbery. Earlier this week, I briefly retrieved that indictment after enduring the witless “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story.” It’s not the end of American cinema, but it may signal either the end of Ben Stiller’s ambitions or the launch of a vendetta against his fans.
That’s too bad. A talented comic and underappreciated director -- his 1996 “The Cable Guy” remains a subversive dark pleasure -- Stiller seems to have spent the last decade balancing his better instincts against his worst, good taste against commercial opportunism. Since the 1998 smash “There’s Something About Mary,” the gonzo comedy that rocketed Cameron Diaz to stardom, Stiller stretched himself with the true grit of “Permanent Midnight” and that sparkling diamond “The Royal Tenenbaums.” He refined his uptight-dude shtick to amusing effect in “Meet the Parents” and considerably less so in “Along Came Polly.” In testament to how this town rewards diminishing returns, he also turned a wafer-thin conceit into a feature with “Zoolander,” a goof that owes most of its juice and laughs to costar Owen Wilson.
It would be easier to dismiss “DodgeBall” as a bump on the trajectory of Stiller’s comic evolution if not for such recent duds as “Duplex” and “Envy” and the aggressively lazy “Starsky & Hutch.” Worse and more revealingly, there is a post-end credit sequence in “DodgeBall” that finds its star and co-producer encased in a fat suit and fondling his pendant latex mammaries while he gases on about the movies. The diatribe involves American film, and though the rant is meant to be funny, it’s laced with bitter rage. Even under layers of padding Stiller sounds less like he’s trying to make a point (or send up his critics) and more like he’s trying to defend the preceding 97 minutes of mean-spirited vulgarity and homosexual panic.
Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, making his first and what may be his last feature, “DodgeBall” reveals an almost pathological anxiety about homosexuality of the sort that’s generally best worked out in a therapist’s office. Many if not most of the alleged jokes involve genitals and orifices, and dodge balls smashing into male nether regions. Vince Vaughn, showing little sign of life and less interest, plays the owner of a small gymnasium that’s in the shadow and in the way of a slick outfit called Globo Gym, run by Stiller’s preening peacock. The two square off amid assorted geeks and freaks and pretend to tussle over the regulation girl (Stiller’s wife, Christine Taylor). Among the other talented performers biding their time: Rip Torn, Gary Cole, Stephen Root and Hank Azaria.
With few exceptions -- namely Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne -- adult- and adolescent-oriented American movie comedy has been on a consistent downward slide into the sewer for far too long. While the Farrelly brothers search for new comic ground, the genre has in their success become engulfed in infantilism and cruelty.
There’s probably a doctoral student beavering away on the meaning of all this puerile nonsense, but meanwhile there’s little to laugh about in the movies. Stiller may go on to better material, and one day he may yet turn his and Jerry Stahl’s excellent adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” into the movie that admirers of this legendary chronicle about selling your soul in Hollywood deserve. It would be nice to think he still takes the book’s lessons to heart.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for rude and sexual humor and language
Times guidelines: Toilet humor, violence played for laughs
Vince Vaughn...Peter LaFleur
Christine Taylor...Kate Veatch
Ben Stiller...White Goodman
Rip Torn...Patches O’Houlihan
Twentieth Century Fox presents
in association with Mediastream IV
a Red Hour Production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber. Producers Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld. Director of photography Jerzy Zielinski. Production designer Maher Ahmad. Film editor Alan Baumgarten. Costume designer Carol Ramsey. Music supervisor George Drakoulias. Music Theodore Shapiro. Casting Juel Bestrop, Jeanne McCarthy, Blythe Cappello. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In general release.