Even—or perhaps especially—fans of Will Ferrell’s earlier sports comedies may be disappointed by his latest, the basketball-themed “Semi-Pro.” Sure, a good chunk of it is the sort of goofy, slightly grotesque and more than a mite gross shtick that Ferrell, the modern-day answer to Jerry Lewis, specializes in: he’s the player-owner of a terrible team that’s threatened with extinction. But that’s joined to a considerably more restrained, even serious plot line involving Woody Harrelson as an over-the-hill star he hires to turn the franchise around—a part of the picture that Ferrell fans might find as welcome as ten-year old boys did the “kissing” scenes in fifties westerns. And the whole thing is played against the merger of the upstart American Basketball Association with the NBA back in the mid-seventies—something you’ll have to be pushing forty to remember at all. Put it all together and you’ve actually got a movie that’s actually more ambitious than the funnyman’s previous star vehicles, but more problematic in is appeal to his fan base.
Ferrell plays—in his usual wild-eyed, non-acting fashion—Jackie Moon, a doofus who was able to buy the Flint, Michigan Tropics with the royalties from his one hit song “Love Me Sexy.” He plays on the squad, an Afro-haired goofball, but his real calling is as an entrepreneur, devising loopy theatrical shows and deceptive promotions designed to draw in crowds. Of course they don’t, so he tries to revivify the team by trading for a one-time NBA standout named Monix (Harrelson), getting the guy not with money but a household appliance. Monix shows up in Flint dismayed by the condition of the team, but he’s actually more interested in reconnecting with his former girlfriend Lynn (Maura Tierney), who lives there. Simultaneously the ABA Commissioner (David Koechner) announces that the league is going to merge with the NBA and only four of its teams will survive; and Moon determines to have the Tropics become one of them by improving its win-lose record astronomically.
Within the confines of this rather flimsy scenario Ferrell gets his usual quota of stand-alone sketches, like one in which he wrestles a bear to attract a crowd to the bleachers. And as usual he trawls for laughs by showing off his flabby frame and—in this case—modeling the tiny, tight shorts that were part of the basketball uniform thirty years ago (not only a sight designed to make one shudder, but one that director Kent Alterman shoves in your face with upward shots from the court floor).
But apart from a few instances, Ferrell’s bits fall pretty flat. The only really big laughs come from the antics of some of the other players, and particularly from the deadpan pronouncements of staid team announcer Dick Pepperfield played by Andrew Daly, whose blandly shocked reactions to the nuttiness surrounding him are quite funny. And there’s a good running gag involving Jackie Earle Haley as a fan who hits an impossible shot during one of Jackie’s phony promotions and tries for the rest of the movie to collect his promised winnings.
But the material for the other Moon cronies, played by Will Arnett and Andy Richter, is either frantic or tedious (or both), and the entire subplot involving Coffee (Andre Benjamin), the Tropics’ best player, aims simultaneously for reality and uplift in a way that ultimately doesn’t click. As if that weren’t bad enough, all the Harrelson business—both the “turning the team around” stuff and his renewal of his relationship with Lynn—drags the movie down whenever it intrudes, however sympathetic the actor might be as a guy trying to redeem himself for years of half-hearted effort. (An especially baffling aspect of it is the part played, with slobbering intensity, by Rob Corddry—it’s obvious that his character is mentally challenged, but it’s not made clear whether he’s supposed to be Lynn’s husband or her brother. If the former, the grossness is astronomical, especially in the scene where he stumbles on the two having at it on a couch and uses the occasion to gratify himself, too.)
“Semi-Pro” has the usual level of technical competence for a Ferrell movie, which means it looks a mite tacky on purpose. But production designer Clayton Hartley has some fun with the period details, as does costumer Susan Matheson; and DP Shane Hurlbut seems to have a good time not only with the court action but with Jackie’s extravagantly silly promotional numbers.
As a whole, though, the movie comes out on the short end of the final score. It’s only sporadically funny, ineffectual when it goes serious or sentimental and, in the last analysis, is mostly mediocre.