For me, Will Ferrell's movies have much in common with his Saturday Night Live work very hit-and-miss. I thought Ferrell's George W. Bush was genius; I despised the cheerleaders. On the big screen, I typically find Ferrell more funny in a supporting or cameo role (Old School and Wedding Crashers) than as a lead, with the exception of Elf, which I found to be very well-done and very funny. Lately, he has done a string of sports movies (if you want to call figure skating a sport), and the quality appears to be sliding with each one. Talladega Nights was worth watching, with a couple of very funny scenes among the more mildly amusing ones. Blades of Glory was not as good, but it had its moments. Semi-Pro, Ferrell's latest sports comedy, fails to hit the mark, which is a shame, because the concept is terrific. Semi-Pro also marks Ferrell's return to an "R" rated movie for the first time since Old School, which gave me hope that it might bring Ferrell back to that level of success.
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Set during the 1970's, Semi-Pro's background is the heydey of the old ABA (American Basketball Association), which really did exist as a flamboyant, strutting challenger to the established NBA. Will Ferrell is Jackie Moon, a one-hit pop wonder who uses his Love Me Sexy cash to purchase the Flint (Michigan) Tropics and becomes owner-coach-player. When the NBA and ABA decide to do a partial merger (which also actually really happened), only the top four teams in the ABA will get to join the NBA. Jackie Moon's Tropics are in last place, but he is determined to get them into the top 4, and thus into the NBA.
All of this should be a grand set up for a great comedy movie. Will Ferrell clearly has a fascination with the 1970's (see Anchor Man), with its outlandish clothes and funk music. The ABA was flashy, with the visual comedy of the short shorts and giant afros. Ferrell has enlisted a couple of good sidekicks, including Woody Harrelson as Ed Monix, as a NBA player who won a championship sitting on the bench for the Celtics. Jackie Moon trades a washing machine for Monix, which is the typical of the kind of comedy Semi-Pro offers. As shown in White Men Can't Jump, Harrelson can legitimately play basketball, but we also know from Cheers that he can do great comedy, which he doesn't get a chance to do here. Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000 from OutKast) is Clarence Withers, apparently a Dr. J-inspired character. Benjamin is developing some acting skills as he moves beyond his music career, but he doesn't get to do much here.
The fact is that Semi-Pro could have cast me and couple of other Joe's as the supporting cast in this movie as most of the comedy relies on visual gags rather than cleverly written dialogue or well-executed routines. I saw Ferrell take advantage of much of the visual hilarity of the 1970's in Anchor Man. I wasn't impressed then, and I'm even less so here. A number of the gags revolve around Jackie Moon's attempts at promoting the Tropics, such as Free Gerbil Nightor Dime Beer Night, but they're only good for a chuckle, not a belly laugh. Same for the scene where Jackie Moon wrestles a bear. First-time director Kent Alterman probably isn't too blame for the script (although his directing doesn't help), but he probably needs to stick with producing. But knowing that writer Scot Armstrong was given a writing credit for Old School, you do have to wonder how much he really contributed to that consistently hysterical comedy when he fails so miserably here.
In the end, Semi-Pro is probably worth catching on a random night on HBO, or perhaps a rental if you're desperate. Don't make a trip to the cinema for it, unless you're desperate for comedy, in which case I don't think College Road Trip next week is going to be any better.
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