When my buddy Gus visited me last month, we ate dinner at Hooters on Hollywood Boulevard, took in a "Jimmy Kimmel Live" taping and caught a 9:40 showing of "Dodgeball" at the world-famous Mann's Chinese Theater. Now that's an historic Friday night. Sure, we would have capped things off 10 years ago with a couple of hookers on Sunset Boulevard, or at least three games of "Madden 2004." But for two guys in their 30s, that's about as exciting as it gets.
Heading into the theater, Gus was struck by two things. First, tickets were $11 apiece. Apparently, that's a lot. I wouldn't know. After living in California for 20 months, I've lost all concept of how much things cost. I think I paid $20 for a pack of Starburst last week. And second, there were hundreds of people packing the place, all of whom were beyond fired up beyond belief. Even the trailers were greeted with laughs and gasps. We started to suspect something was seriously wrong when they applauded at the end of the trailer for "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle." I'm not making this up.
"I think everyone's stoned but us," Gus whispered. "I keep waiting for Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire to walk in."
Hey, we should have known something was up when 230 people were in line at the popcorn counter. Just to make this perfectly clear, I would always rather see a comedy with an audience that's baked beyond belief. For one thing, you don't have to worry about anyone making a cell-phone call, because nobody can actually figure out how to use the phone. Also, there isn't a lot of movement -- people tend to stay in one place when they're stoned, almost like they're dead, unless someone's having a panic attack, which can be more entertaining than the actual movie. And most importantly, a stoned audience will usually laugh at everything. And I mean, EVERYTHING.
As we found out.
Because I have never been in an audience that laughed harder from start to finish. There have been four other movie experiences in my life that compared:
1. "Naked Gun" -- Everyone forgets how funny this movie was when it came out. I distinctly remember nearly choking to death on a Sour Patch Kid during the Jumbotron scene with the baseball bloopers. For some reason, "Gun" didn't hold up the way "Caddyshack," "Animal House," "Just One of the Guys" and some of the other classics from the '70s and '80s have held up. I don't have an answer for this. Maybe it's O.J.'s fault.
2. "There's Something about Mary" -- I know, you're tired of Ben Stiller and the Farrelly Brothers and everyone else. But this was one of the great movies of the decade. I agree with William Goldman -- if a movie this well-done and this funny can't be nominated for an Oscar, why even have the Oscars?
3. "48 Hours" -- I caught this one with my friend Mike Kabjian in Stamford, Connecticut. We snuck in. We were like a combined 24 years old. As it turned out, we were the only two white people in the theater. And this was Eddie Murphy in his "Doc Gooden in '84" stage -- just throwing 98 mph and striking out 16 a game. It was utter chaos for nearly two hours. Let's leave it at that. Maybe that's why I've seen this movie 250 times since. That was the greatest movie experience I've ever had.
4. "Funny Farm" -- Remember this Chevy Chase movie? Mildly underrated, but not that memorable, right? I saw this one with Gus, my buddy Geoff, and an audience that was just not prepared to laugh at anything Chevy Chase did. Of course, Gus LOVES Chevy Chase. So he was dying. Absolutely dying. For nearly two hours, he was the only person laughing in a semi-crowded theater. Eventually, Geoff and I started laughing only because Gus was laughing. People were turning around. People were staring at us. People were confused. Didn't matter.
So that's the company we're talking about here. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that "Dodgeball" would crack the top five of anything other than a "Worst Sports Movies" list. The immortal Vince Vaughn stars as Peter LaFleur, a down-on-his-luck hero along the lines of Clint Eastwood in "Any Which Way You Can," or at least Peter Horton in "Side Out." This is going to sound weird, but Vince never fully commits to the movie. You know those Shaq games where Shaq jogs up and down the court for 48 minutes, doesn't feel like posting up and only grabs rebounds if the ball comes directly to him? That's Vince Vaughn in "Dodgeball." You can tell that he isn't entirely sure if the movie stinks or not, so he's distancing himself from it even as the scenes are being filmed. Let's see if they put that last sentence on a movie poster.
Anyway, Vince owns a gym that's about to go under, so he enlists the help of his workers -- an absolute cadre of losers and psychopaths -- to help him come up with $50,000 before everyone loses their jobs. There isn't one truly funny character in the bunch. Poor Vince spends the whole movie with a "Wait a second, I thought you told me Will Ferrell and the Wilson Brothers were going to be in this movie?" look on his face.
And then there's Vince's archrival: White Goodman, an over-the-top musclehead who owns a rival gym and wants to swallow up Vince's place. Because of the goofy mustache and the ripped muscles, this is supposed to feel like a different Ben Stiller character. No dice. It's really a cross between Derek Zoolander and the evil nursing home aide he played in "Happy Gilmore." No surprise. Stiller only has three characters in his wheelhouse: The overwhelmed Everyman from "Something About Mary," "Meet The Parents" and everything else; the guy from "Zoolander"; and the over-the-top evil guy.
(Note: I've never supported the "Maybe people will think I can play a bunch of different people if I keep changing my wigs and my facial hair" school of comedy, especially when that same person is pumping out 26 movies a year. In fact, I think another Ben Stiller movie was just released while I was typing this paragraph. Remember, this strategy worked for Robin Williams for about 10 years ... until his fans wore out on him and stopped trusting his judgment with movies. Seems like we're headed that way with Stiller, who has "Along Came Polly," "Duplex" and "Envy" on his resume in the past 18 months alone. Then again, he's probably made about $150 million over the past six years. As usual, I have no point.)
Wherever you stand on Stiller, he's brutal in this movie. Borderline unwatchable. He hasn't been this bad since "Mystery Men." Of course, everyone in the theater was laughing at everything he did, even though his character felt like a painful SNL sketch dragged out over 90 agonizing minutes. It was right around then that Gus and I started glancing at one another in disbelief. Was this REALLY happening? And when were we getting at least a contact high? Would that be too much to ask?
Back to the movie: Vince and his cast of losers sign up for a $50,000 Dodgeball contest in Vegas, eventually roping in White Goodman's cute accountant to join them. She's played by Christine Taylor, who rose to prominence as Marcia Brady in the "Brady Bunch Movie" and married Stiller a few years later (the best thing that could have happened to her personal life AND her IMDB.com page). Just like in "Zoolander," she leaves you with that rare feeling after the movie that you have absolutely no opinion on her whatsoever. Also, Rip Torn plays their wheelchair-bound, foul-mouthed coach in his best performance since "Larry Sanders." Although that's not saying anything.
So what happens? Torn teaches Vince's team how to play Dodgeball. And for the next 20 minutes, people get hit in the head and the groin -- with balls, wrenches, shoes, you name it. It's like the studio told the director, "I liked the first cut, I really did, but can you have some more people get nailed in the nuts?" And then that conversation happened another 10 times. For our audience, it couldn't happen enough -- people were howling in delight, people were applauding, people were doubled over in their seats. You have never seen a movie resonate with its core audience quite like this. They should have just sold pot brownies in the main lobby and gotten it over with.
Eventually, Vince's team travels to Vegas for the tournament. Here's what really killed me: Where was the cheesy '80s montage of Dodgeball highlights during the tournament? If you're making an homage to bad sports movies -- at least, I hope that's what this was -- how can you not trot out one of those sequences like "You're the Best" in "Karate Kid," or "Win In The End" from "Teen Wolf," or even the emotional "Winner Takes It All" scene from "Over the Top," as the team comes together and starts knocking out opponents? Even two weeks later, I'm disappointed. And where was the "One of the guys on the team gets injured and gives a cheesy pep talk to the rest of the guys" scene? I feel gypped. How can you sneak in a "Let them play!" chant and not have this other stuff?
(That reminds me, if you're going to make a movie where the crowd chants "Let them play! Let them play!", you need to have Bob Watson and Cesar Cedeno on hand. You just do. This isn't up for debate. If you can coerce Watson to say, "Come on, man, let the kids play," that's even better.)
Everything leads to the inevitable final match against Stiller's team, with some decent twists thrown in along the way, including a barrage of cameos from everyone you can imagine: Hank Azaria, Chuck Norris, William Shatner, David Hasselhoff, even Booger from "Revenge of the Nerds." The best one happens when Vince inexplicably tries to leave Vegas before the finals -- and no, this made no sense whatsoever -- and runs into Lance Armstrong at the airport, resulting in the best unexpected cameo by an athlete since Xavier McDaniel in "Singles." My favorite scene in the movie.
Here's what else I liked: For all the slapstick stuff, there were some genuinely clever moments in the script, enough wrinkles to maintain everyone's interest. This movie should have been terrible. I mean, TERRIBLE. And it really wasn't that bad -- it's a fast 90 minutes. The wrinkle that got the biggest laugh? Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber's idea to have the Dodgeball championship showing on ESPN8 (otherwise known as "The Ocho"). Some outraged readers believe that Thurber ripped off my running joke about ESPN6 -- which was originally Gus's joke, ironically enough -- but this script was apparently kicking around Hollywood for years.
And besides, that's such a blatant coincidence that I can't imagine anyone would ever attempt such a thing. For God's sake, I've been making that ESPN6 joke for three years right here on ESPN.com. It had to be a coincidence. Regardless, in the movie, it's hysterical -- especially with Jason Bateman's surprise turn as the moronic color analyst pushing the gimmick over the top. Which reminds me, am I the only one who's thoroughly enjoying the Jason Bateman Resurgence? If this leads to the release of "It's Your Move" on DVD, I don't know what I'm capable of.
You can guess how the movie ends. Frankly, I couldn't hear most of the last 15 minutes, which were drowned out by nonstop laughter and applause, almost like a Leno studio audience gone insane. By the time "Dodgeball" ended, as we listened to everyone around us giving the movie an extended ovation, Gus and I had this exchange:
Gus: "I need to see this movie again."
Me: "With a normal audience?"
Gus: "Yeah ... it can't possibly be this funny. I need to know for sure."
Me: "I agree, we should see it again in two weeks."
Needless to say, that never ended up happening. We'll have to wait until HBO shows it 630 times next April. Part of me hopes that the audience wasn't stoned that night, that the movie really WAS that good, that Gus and I are just getting old and grumpy. The other part of me believes -- fervently -- that the movie stunk and I'm never getting that 11 bucks back. And since the question will never be definitively answered, I have to judge accordingly.
Final Verdict: 6.5 bong hits out of 10.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine and Page 2. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site every day on ESPN.com.