Will Ferrell: Minor Court Jester
There are many indications that Will Ferrell's latest sports comedy Semi-Pro isn't a winner. The most obvious is the paucity of laughter the hoops flick generates. A second is traceable to the creative process, such as it was. When a screenwriter and cast, to the extent they ad-libbed, resort to so much gratuitous profanity, it's a sure sign of desperation. A third indicator is that no basketball metaphor will suffice when trying to slag it off. Air Ball, Foul Shot, Blown Lay-Up, Double Dribble. They all seem as lazy and uninspired as the movie.
Based on Ferrell's track record and the marketing campaign, my concern going in was that Semi-Pro would be a one-joke comedy. Quite honestly, it doesn't even qualify as that -- unless an uncoordinated white guy in an Afro and disco-era duds equals comedy. They might have been better off trying for a mix of laughs and sweat-stained jock drama along the lines of the original gridiron flick The Longest Yard from 1974 or Paul Newman's 1977 hockey movie Slap Shot.
Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, owner, coach and power forward on a fictional ABA franchise (remember the red-white-and-blue balls?) called The Tropics from economically depressed Flint, Michigan. Jackie's only talent is promotion. He's a one-hit wonder who earned enough money to buy the team with his song "Love Me Sexy" and will try anything to put rear ends in the seats.
It's 1976, and money is as tight as the players' shorts. The NBA has decided to absorb four teams from the troubled league in a merger; the rest will have to fold. Ranting like an infantile doofus, Jackie convinces his fellow owners to make the criteria performance-based rather than tied to earning potential and market sustainability.
The Tropics are lousy on both scores and in order to improve their dismal record, Jackie trades the team's washing machine for a cut-rate version of the great white hope -- a veteran player named Monix (Woody Harrelson). Along with bad knees, Monix has an NBA championship ring, won when he was a benchwarmer on the Boston Celtics, that just might inspire the ragtag squad to start winning.
There's nothing professional about the energy expended however. The comedy is so lackadaisical that a random romantic subplot involving Monix and his ex-girlfriend (ER fixture Maura Tierney) is inserted. There's no effort to make Tierney's character appear to be from 1976, which exemplifies how Semi-Pro doesn't know what tone to take about the era or the ABA. It's not satirical, nor is it nostalgic.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the best of Ferrell's three previous sports-themed comedies (along with Kicking & Screaming and Blades of Glory), towers over this bomb for many reasons, including the fact Ferrell had talent surrounding him. Along with Harrelson (an actor with celluloid basketball experience to recommend him), Andre Benjamin, Andy Richter and Will Arnett have been drafted to negligible effect.
There are no surprising cameos, maybe because there aren't that many ABA greats still around and reps for hoops stars of more recent vintage read the script before committing. Patti LaBelle appears as Jackie's dear departed mom and a few SNL alums like Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows and Jason Sudeikis pop up. Jackie Earle Haley -- co-star of an all-time great sports movie Breaking Away and a 2006 Oscar nominee for Little Children -- plays a stoner fan who sinks a miracle half-court shot but can't get Jackie to fork over the $10,000 prize. This is what an Oscar nomination gets you nowadays?
Part of the blame for Semi-Pro's mediocrity has to be put at the feet of Kent Alterman, who makes his directorial debut after years as a Hollywood development executive. Without help from tested filmmakers, you have to wonder whether Ferrell can make us laugh again. I'm sure he will, but a little coaching on the Xs and Os of comedy wouldn't hurt.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "R" for language and some sexual content.)