Director : Kent Alterman
Screenplay : Scot Armstrong
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Will Ferrell (Jackie Moon), Woody Harrelson (Eddie Monix), André Benjamin (Clarence “Coffee” Black), Maura Tierney (Lynn), Andrew Daly (Dick Pepperfield), Will Arnett (Lou Redwood), Andy Richter (Bobby Dee), David Koechner (Commissioner), Rob Corddry (Kyle), Matt Walsh (Father Pat the Ref), Jackie Earle Haley (Dukes)
Semi-Pro spends most of its time trading on good will that it doesn’t really earn. Not surprisingly, producer-turned-director Kent Alterman’s basketball comedy relies most heavily on the presence of Will Ferrell playing another variation on the same character that has been his bread and butter in films like Old School (2003), Anchorman (2005), and Talladega Nights (2006): the blustery, misguided idiot man-child who is lovable precisely because he is so preciously clueless, even when he’s slipping into fits of adolescent rage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Don’t forget that screen comedians from Charlie Chaplin to Chris Farley have often done their best when playing within the parameters of a familiar character type.
Had Semi-Pro offered something more than Ferrell’s well-worn schtick, it would have probably been about as funny as it thinks it is. Unfortunately, the only other things it has to offer are well-worn sports movie clichés about the bruised underdogs prevailing in the end, a strained romantic subplot that goes nowhere, and a jokey attitude about bad haircuts, bad clothes, bad sweatbands--in other words, the generally ostentatious nature of America in the 1970s. We’ve seen this before in various guises both comedic and serious, which means it has to be done really well to work. Semi-Pro is only about half that good.
Sporting a white man’s fro and his trademark lack of inhibition, Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the goofed-out owner, coach, and starting player (not to mention announcer) of the Detroit-based Flint Tropics, an American Basketball Association team in the late 1970s that barely draws a crowd. Moon can afford to keep this debacle of a team going because he made millions being a one-hit wonder a few years earlier (his admittedly hilarious disco tune “Love Me Sexy” opens the movie on a high note that it never quite lives up to). When the ABA commissioner (David Koechner) announces that the league is going to merge with the more successful National Basketball Association, but only four teams will go, Jackie makes it his business to win the rest of the season in order to keep the franchise (and the dream!) alive.
Shades of the relatively superior Major League (1988) are hard to shake off with the introduction of Eddie Monix (Woody Harrelson), a close-to-has-been who warmed the bench for the Boston Celtics during their championship run and is now Jackie’s only hope for turning the Tropics around. Returning to Flint brings Monix close to his ex-girlfriend Lynn (Maura Tierney), for whom he stills pines despite having torpedoed their relationship with his infidelity. Unfortunately for Monix, Lynn is now married to a bizarro loser named Kyle (Rob Corddry) who happens to be one of Monix’s biggest fans. This creates some amusingly awkward situations, but it gets downright creepy when Kyle catches Monix and Lynn in the act and decides to participate solo. The “ick factor” far outweighs the comedy.
Thankfully, Semi-Pro tends to get better as it goes along, especially when Jackie starts concocting all manner of ridiculous publicity stunts to fill the seats (these include roller-skating off a ramp and flying over a row of the Tropics’ barely dressed cheerleaders, as well as wrestling a bear, which leads to the movie’s funniest running gag). Unlike last year’s Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro is all goof and no heart; we never really care about the Tropics or any of its individual players, so it doesn’t matter when, for example, long-time player Clarence “Coffee” Black (André Benjamin) starts playing for the San Antonio Spurs, whom the Tropics will face in their final game. There are certainly some laughs to be had along the way, and the film deserves some credit for going a shade darker than the typical Ferrell comedy, but in the end it’s too simply all too familiar.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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