There is a fine line between inspired comedy and awful comedy. It is a line that Will Ferrell walks every time he signs on for a movie. It is fast getting to the point that going to a Ferrell comedy is a proposition worthy of extreme caution.
Perhaps the writing is to blame, with precious few able to write to his strengths. Going in you will never be sure if you are going to get an Anchorman or a Blades of Glory. On the other hand, few hope for what Semi-Pro turned out to be. I know that Ferrell has his die-hard fans, as well as ever present detractors; I fall into neither camp. I find his filmography to be rather spotty, and this latest entry does not help matters.
Will Ferrell has assumed the man-child mantle formerly worn by Adam Sandler (although Sandler does continue to have a stake in the title). The funny thing about Ferrell is that the same things that make him great are the same things that make him bad. In many of his films, he does not act all that differently. Sure, the window dressing and supporting players may change, but at the center of it all is Ferrell with his steady stream of non sequiturs and manic behavior. I am unable to put my finger on just what makes him bad in the movies that flop, but when he is on, he is on. The trailers for Semi-Pro seemed to indicate a Ferrell that was on point. Then again, they try to make all trailers look good, don't they?
Semi-Pro is the story of Jackie Moon, owner, player, and coach of an ABA basketball team, the Flint Tropics. In addition to his involvement with a sport he knows little about, he is also a former pop star. He had one hit single, the profits from which were used to purchase the team. Anyway, the Tropics have few fans, few prospects, and are just terrible on the court. Then comes the news that the ABA will be merging with the NBA at the conclusion of the season. What follows is Jackie's efforts to have the Tropics be one of the four teams that will be absorbed into the senior circuit.
I sat there waiting for something to be funny. I waited, and I waited, and I waited some more. Then, the movie was over. What happened? Did I miss something? Was a reel missing? I mean, it couldn't be over, could it? I didn't see anything funny. Judging by the reaction of the rest of the crowd, I wasn't alone in wondering where the funny was.
I saw a group of actors trying to be funny, saying lines that must have been funny to write. I guess it was the translation. Somewhere between pen reaching paper and words exiting mouths the jokes lost what made them humorous. Much like that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry wrote something down in the middle of the night that he thought was funny but then could not figure out what it was. When it is finally revealed what he wrote, it was universally agreed upon that it was not funny. That is what watching Semi-Pro is like. You know that at one point it was, but when put into practice, it falls flat.
It is a shame, as the cast does have the talent to make a funny movie. Joining Ferrell in the backfield are Andre Benjamin as the team's most talented player, Woody Harrelson as the washed-up veteran trying to prove his worth and win back his sweetheart, Maura Tierney as the sweetheart who is inconveniently married to Rob Corddry, and David Koechner as the league president. In smaller roles are Jackie Earle Haley as a stoner who wins an in-game promotion, Will Arnett as a player turned announcer, Andy Richter as the team's manager, Tim Meadows as an injured reserve, and Patti Labelle with an unlikely connection. See? There is plenty of talent, yet none of it connects. Chemistry is weak and the jokes go on too long or not long enough.
Pointing to the reason for failure is like looking for a needle in a haystack. There was a certain alignment of the planets, increased sunspot activity, a bend in the space/time continuum, any number of things conspiring in perfect union to bring this film down. What should have been a laugh riot turned out to be about as much fun as sitting through Cat in the Hat again (yes, I had the misfortune of seeing that as well).
Bottom line. One can only hope that Ferrell's next film (Step Brothers) will find the man-child effective once more. Much like last year's Blades of Glory, this will be just another glitch, and not a sign of things to come. See this if you must, just don't expect to have much fun.