Will Ferrell returns to the well yet again with Semi-Pro, a 2008 sports comedy. Directed by Kent Alterman in his directorial debut, Semi-Pro lacks the humour and punch of many of Ferrell’s other comedies. It also lacks the energy of Blades of Glory or Talladega Nights, instead focusing on being an homage to the style of the 1970s and to the American Basketball Association. The jokes come in two varieties here: over-the-top and referential. The jokes that fall in the latter category work best, as many of the over-the-top attempts are odd but not odd enough to be funny.
Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, a 1970s singer who used the profits from his hit single “Love Me Sexy” to purchase the Flint Tropics basketball team in the American Basketball Association. The film opens with a funny montage of Moon’s life thus far, showing bits of his hit song and newspaper clippings that describe his tendency to use bizarre gimmicks to bring fans to Tropics games. The montage closes with Moon still singing “Love Me Sexy” to a ridiculously small crowd at the Flint Coliseum. Jackie, we discover, is the owner/player/coach/promoter of the Tropics.
Eventually, the ABA Commissioner (David Koechner) tells Moon about plans for the ABA to merge with the NBA. Only four teams will move to the NBA, however, and the rest of the teams will be dissolved. Jackie’s team is in danger of dissolution, as they sit in the basement of the league and have a non-existent fan base. Moon argues that the best teams in the league should get to move to the NBA and then tries to turn his Tropics around with the help of NBA champion Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson).
Semi-Pro works best when it tries to capitalize on some of the more ridiculous ideas that Moon has to promote his team. While the execution of those ideas is less than humorous, the film still manages to create a decent chuckle here and there. Alterman’s film, it turns out, is more fun to think about than to actually see and experience. One imagines that the script reading must have been very funny, but the finished product is less than amusing. As with most Ferrell comedies, there are a few laughs to be had, but Semi-Pro stretches them out too sparingly for the film to be fairly considered a worthwhile comedy.
The best bits are the send-ups of 1970s shtick, like Ferrell’s awfully good rendition of “Love Me Sexy” and some of the fashion worn by the characters in the film. The attitudes are somewhat funny, too, like a ridiculously over-the-top poker game between some of the team’s announcers and former players. Ferrell successfully captures the vibe of the 1970s here, but again it’s not particularly effective as humour. Instead, it’s more effective as a reference to a decidedly silly time in history.
The side plot involving Monix and his ex (Maura Tierney) simply feels tacked on and stupid. Monix is a reasonable character and some of the stuff involving his winning a championship with the Boston Celtics provides some motivation and interesting dialogue with some of the Tropics, but his character is, overall, a mistake. Instead, the existence of Monix in such a pivotal role forces the attention away from the film’s star, Ferrell, and away from the potential for comedy. One wonders if the Monix storyline wasn’t to be the main focal point of the picture, as his scenes appear much more crucial than they need to be.
I think part of the problem with Semi-Pro is that it is almost too ambitious to work as a comedy in the traditional sense. It is far less stupid than it should be, actually, and the execution of some of the silly gags is taken without the usual frenetic energy and silliness that we’ve come to expect (or loathe) from Will Ferrell. When he wrestles a bear, it’s not as funny as it should be. One funny gag about stopping scoring so as to prevent “Free Corndog Night” is just barely silly enough to work. The goal here should have been to mindlessly serve up slapstick slam dunks, but instead the film lacks that punch and resolve and settles for more as opposed to less.
Like Anchorman, Semi-Pro works when it sends up the time period in which the characters exist. Unlike Anchorman, however, the characters aren’t funny enough and the jokes lack energy. Instead, Semi-Pro is a lackadaisical effort that would have been better had it dumbed itself down a little more. There aren’t enough stand-out jokes to make it work and it feels like a wasted effort.