Will Ferrell must find sports to be really funny. After covering soccer in Kicking and Screaming, figure skating in Blades of Glory, and NASCAR in Talladega Nights, he now turns his comedic skills to basketball in Semi-Pro. The film is set in the mid-1970’s, a time period also utilized by Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. A lot of other critics are already deriding the comedian for repeating himself, but I’ll cut him some slack. After all, how many stoner comedies did Cheech and Chong make? How many wisecracking rebels has Bill Murray played in his career? How many times has Ben Stiller brought out his “I’m so agitated, I could kill someone” shtick? As long as the joke’s still funny, I have no problem with a comedian falling back on some core material.
So is Semi-Pro funny? Yes, it is. Or, more accurately, it sometimes is. The laugh ratio isn’t as high here as it has been in most of Ferrell’s other recent films, but the problem isn’t repetition or familiarity. The problem is indecisiveness. More on that in a moment.
The setting is Flint, Michigan circa 1976. Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, a one-hit wonder whose song “Love Me Sexy” has made him rich enough to buy an ABA franchise, the Tropics. Since he owns the team, Jackie also installs himself as manager, player, and even announcer. Not many people show up to the games, but no one on the team seems to care until the ABA announces its intention to have four teams absorbed into the NBA, with all the others disbanding.
Jackie is incensed and convinces the powers-that-be to allow the top four scoring teams for the season be the ones chosen to move to the NBA. The Tropics wouldn’t seem to have a snowball’s chance of doing this, even with star player Clarence “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin), but Jackie doesn’t want to see his team vanish. Determined, he brings in assistance in the form of Monix (Woody Harrelson), who warmed the bench for a winning team and, by default, earned a championship ring in the process. Monix ends up taking over as coach, teaching the players some new moves and basically doing an end run around Jackie’s unconventionality. (Jackie worries as much about choreographing a half-time show or promoting Corn Dog Night as he does about winning.)
Will Ferrell is, no doubt, one of the premiere funnymen working in movies today. He’s also very comfortable with his own sense of humor. The majority of his characters have that same combination of arrogance and cluelessness, yet Ferrell somehow finds ways of playing it differently every time. As a fan, I’ll happily line up for any film he chooses to make, simply because the guy always makes me laugh.
But, in a way, that’s part of the problem with Semi-Pro; it’s only about half of what you expect. The film never really decides what it wants to be. Fifty percent of it is a semi-straightforward tale of the Tropics trying to merge into the NBA. The other fifty percent is a prototypically absurd Will Ferrell comedy. It tries to walk the line between both, yet that approach never completely satisfies. One minute, Jackie Moon is fighting for his team to have a legitimate chance, and the next he’s wrestling a bear. I think Semi-Pro would have been a lot more effective had it definitively picked one approach or the other. Either would have been fine. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Will Ferrell stretch to do a slice-of-life comedy, nor would I have minded seeing him bring his wacky approach to a basketball picture. The two personalities of this movie each have their strong points, so there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been either thing convincingly. Trying to merge the two together, though, only makes for a disjointed – and surprisingly disappointing – experience.
If Semi-Pro lacks a strong comedic center, it at least gets some things right on the fringes. I like the moments that engage in that trademark Ferrell insanity, such as a very funny scene involving a poker game, an unloaded pistol, and the expression “jive turkey.” A running gag about a Monix-worshipping fan (Rob Corddry) is clever too; it culminates with a jaw-droppingly audacious sight gag when the guy finds Monix making love to his girlfriend. The scene-stealer of the movie turns out to be Andrew Daly as a sportscaster named Dick Pepperfield. Daly looks and sounds like every single 70’s sportscaster you’ve ever heard, which makes his occasional profane utterances that much more hilarious. There’s even a clever cameo from Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) as a contest winner who can’t figure out what to do with his giant check.
Semi-Pro almost worked. It really did. There’s much to like here. But every time we start to enjoy the gleeful wackiness of its outrageous humor, it abruptly asks us to care about Jackie Moon and the Tropics. And every time we start to care about them, it abruptly shocks us out of it with off-the-wall jokes and R-rated raunch. I don’t think Semi-Pro is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It just doesn’t rank as one of Will Ferrell’s best. The movie has a lot of the right ingredients; it just needed someone like super-producer (and frequent Ferrell collaborator) Judd Apatow to come in and help the more realistic stuff mesh better with the loopy stuff.
( 1/2 out of four)
Semi-Pro is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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