Semi-ProReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/01/08 17:21:06
By this point we should all be tired of Will Ferrell’s sports comedies. After all, they all seem to be the same movie: clueless braggart with funny name wears bad clothes while a hackneyed plot gets stretched to comic exaggeration. And yet, somehow, Ferrell avoid repetition; his movies have the same ingredients but always make a different meal. It’s what keeps the formula fresh despite itself.In fact, when his latest oddball comedy, “Semi-Pro,” works in Ferrell Mode, it’s pretty darn funny. The problem is that it only periodically works in Ferrell Mode, with the rest of the time spent trying to be a legitimate movie. This unruly combo kills the film and leaves us with Ferrell’s weakest effort since his “Roxbury” days. What the makers of “Semi-Pro” don’t seem to understand is that you can’t mock the plot in one scene and then ask us to take it seriously the next.
Writer Scot Armstrong (“Road Trip,” “Old School”) and producer-turned-rookie director Kent Alterman do their best to recapture the Ferrell vibe, hitting the mark with accuracy in several scenes. Why, then, do they drift away into more mainstream territory? Were the mostly-serious later bits involving a character’s potential romance or the basketball team’s quest for one last bit of glory meant as a winking spoof of sports biopic conventions, so dry that they could be mistaken for the genuine article? Probably not. Even in its best scenes, “Semi-Pro” doesn’t show much in the way of smarts, and Armstrong isn’t that clever a screenwriter. The drama appears to want to be taken at face value, which is death to a Will Ferrell spoof.
The movie finds Ferrell as Jackie Moon, a one-hit wonder from the disco era (clips of Jackie’s song provide some of the sharpest laughs) who used his pop music riches to buy the Flint Michigan Tropics, a bumbling ABA team nearing the end of that league’s era. The announcement is made that the ABA is folding and only four teams will be absorbed into the NBA; it’s determined that the league’s four top-ranking teams will be ones to merge, a promise that may or may not be kept.
If the tale of a collapsing sports franchise from a secondary market sounds familiar, that’s because “Semi-Pro” feels like an unofficial remake of the hockey classic “Slap Shot.” Both films feature player-managers desperate to keep their teams afloat for one more year; a ragtag team with a penchant for in-game violence; players accustomed to a career of little value; a gritty view of industrial America in the 70s; and so on.
But “Semi-Pro” isn’t “Slap Shot” - it’s barely even a Will Ferrell movie. It is, simply, a mess. Parts of the movie are played for Ferrell-esque comic exaggeration: a running gag involving a bear, a delirious aside about the phrase “jive turkey,” weird moments involving Ferrell’s buddies in cameo roles. Too often, these comic moments feel random and disconnected; one wonders if Ferrell’s screenplays now come with blank pages with the notation “Will and cast improv here for a while.”
Stuck among these bits are a series of subplots that forget they’re supposed to be funny. Woody Harrelson plays a veteran baller who was traded to the Tropics for a washing machine - a good gag, but such laughs don’t last, and soon Harrelson’s character becomes the center of the film. Ferrell’s antics are shoved to the sidelines to we can watch this other guy patch up his relationship with former girlfiend Maura Tierney, take over as manager of the Tropics, lead the team to victory. Aside from some mild chuckles from the dependably funny Rob Corddry (clumsily inserted into the story as Tierney’s current beau), all of this is presented with a straight face, right down to the inspirational music, victory montages, and big game at the end.On that level, it might have worked. After all, there’s a good deal of sweet charm in watching an entire city root its dying team on in hopes of reaching fourth place. But to see this stuff collide with Ferrell’s style of comedy is to see a movie try to be too many things and ultimately not be very good at any of them. And to see the cast on hand (in addition to the usual gang of Ferrell cohorts, we also get a charming André Benjamin as a young dynamo and Jackie Earle Haley as a spaced-out fan) get stuck in such a muddy mix of styles is to see a terrific comic opportunity wasted.
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