A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 91 mins.

Will Ferrell: Jackie Moon / Woody Harrelson: Monix / Andre Benjamin: Clarence / Maura Tierney: Lynn

Directed by Kent Alterman / Written by Scot Armstrong

SEMI-PRO is only semi-hilarious, which is somewhat disappointing considering that this is a Will Ferrell comedy.  

The actor – one of the great, unsung cinematic comedians that willingly engages in self-debauchery and subhuman humiliation to get chuckles better than anyone – is the best aspect about this new 1970’s-era sports comedy, which is Ferrell’s third sports comedy (if you consider TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY, KICKING AND SCREAMING, and last year’s BLADES OF GLORY) and his second film to lampoon the male-bravado oozing Disco-era (see ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY).   Oh, as was the case with the last mentioned film, SEMI-PRO is also the second film where Ferrell has to battle a grizzly bear.

It’s safe to say that this may be the first comedy to have me laughing even before the opening credits rolled onward.  As the New Line Cinema logo appeared and segued into the film’s opening credits, we are dealt up a heaping spoon full of giddy guffaws as we hear Ferrell’s character – washed up semi-pro basketball player, Jackie Moon – sing his once number one hit single, “LOVE ME SEXY,” which in the actor’s hands is an unapologetic riot.  I laughed hard during this instance, and even harder in later scene where Moon is wrestling a bear (never mind the particulars, just hear me out).  All you need to know is that Moon is battling the bear as part of a half-time show in front of thousands.  The bear gets loose and Moon grabs a microphone and tries to calm the crowd down by telling them to remain quiet and composed.  When the man-hungry grizzle shows up roaring in the stands, Moon screams to the capacity crowd, “Run!  Flee for your lives….and if you can...grab a young child and use it as a human shield!  The bears love the tasty, tender young meat!” 

I laughed hysterically during that remarkably silly moment, which highlights Ferrell’s unique gifts at wild and peculiar improvisations, which has peppered his past farces to great effect.  Yes, ever since he – in a manly, jealous rage - told Christina Applegate in ANCHORMAN that she “had a pea-sized brain,” was a “dirty pirate hooker” that needed to “go back to whore island,” I knew Ferrell was a genius.  Of course, that moment of feisty and absurdist ad-libbing may pale in comparison to another earlier moment in that film where he told Applegate that San Diego was founded by the Germans in 1904 and that its name was actually German for a whale’s vagina.  She wisely corrected him by revealing that it actually means Saint Diego. 

That’s the Ferrell touch: reaching the meeting point between wacky and ridiculous and going boldly further, all while demonstrating no apparent ego with making himself look like a complete, incompetent moron.  Yes, those oddly commendable traits are here in abundance in SEMI-PRO, but the film loses any semblance of being a great laugh riot by its unevenness.  ANCHORMAN and TALLADEGA NIGHTS were outright farces and satires that never looked back, but SEMI-PRO sort of subverts its own capricious energy and vitality by awkwardly tacking on needless subplots that have an uneasy sentimentality and sincerity to them, not to mention that it tries to be a fairly earnest and pedestrian underdog sports film.  I hasten to write this – nor have I ever been compelled to in any past review - but SEMI-PRO is simply not stupid enough for its own good. 

The 1970’s seem to be the stereotypical poster child for satire (honesty, in 20 years do you think there will be any comedies mocking the 1990’s?), but SEMI-PRO does a decidedly good job of marrying Ferrell’s boisterous and over-the-top exuberance with this equally colorful and flamboyant decade.  In the film Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the owner/coach/advertising executive/sometimes mascot, and, yes, player of the very, very incompetent Flint Tropics of the ABA, a basketball franchise so hapless and pathetic that their stadium remains empty night after night, they lose constantly, have a player that has no grasp of the English language, and have to reduce themselves to acquiring players in trades by giving up their only major appliance.  But, alas, Moon is a pillar of optimism because, dammit, he thinks he’s a great B-ball player, not to mention a swinger and incredibly sexy.  He’s a feeble man that places himself on an egomaniacal pillar of hero worship that he shares primarily be himself…in short...he's the quintessential Ferrellian comedic character. 

Early on Moon discovers that a meeting will occur about the fate of the other ABA franchises; whispers of “merging” with the more universally popular and profitable NBA exist, which blows Moon’s Afro-coifed head and mind.  The meeting here displays Ferrell’s merry frivolity, and when he mistakenly thinks that his team will merge, he jumps up in the air, starts wildly throwing his fists, and proudly proclaims, “Yes!  I’m so happy…I can’t even feel my arms anymore.”  Unfortunately, he suddenly discovers that the Tropics will not be merging, which hits him hard.  Lightning then strikes the promoter in Moon:  In his mind - and to be fair - the top four teams in the ABA should merge.  The board of directors agrees and Moon then places it upon himself to take the Flint Tropics to the top of standings.  

One problem: they suck…badly.

The Tropics has one star player, Clarence “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin, mildly amusing), but they can’t rely on him alone.  Desperate as hell, Moon trades away the team’s washing machine (no…seriously) to acquire washed up and aging NBA player Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson, playing things a bit too straight for a film like this).  As he allows Monix to infuse some strategy into their game play, Moon realizes that he will have to do more to get buts in the seats, which the ABA commissioner wants to see.  He engages in a series of wild and idiotic promotions to get more fans, like the “everyone gets a corndog if the team gets over 125 points” (which leads to a big laugh during the game when Moon purposely conspires to make the team win by not scoring over 125), Moon roller-jumping over every cheerleader, and…yes…his infamous wrestling of a grizzly bear. 

SEMI PRO, as stated, has some big laughs.  There is an incredibly inspired and funny moment where Moon and company are playing poker during which one of his black friends calls one of the Tropics’ color commentators (Will Arnett, funny in small doses here) a “jive turkey”, which then erupts into a game of Russian Roulette with a gun.  Then there is a scene with the downtrodden and depressed Moon is shown sleeping in a dumpster and eating discarded pancakes (the ludicrousness and Ferrell self-debasement here is droll), not to mentioned one of the film’s funniest scenes where the Tropics perform the unheard of “alley op dunk”, which in this film’s universe has never been done before.  The commentators and fans look at the play like it was the second coming of Jesus. 

Yet, there are a lot of jokes that fall rigidly and lazily flat.  One running sight gag that is never funny has the usually hilarious Rob Corddry portraying an obsessed fan to Monix.  He is so infatuated with Monix that when he catches him making love to his wife (Laura Tierney), he does not kick him out of his house.  No, he sits down, watches, and proceeds to masturbate.  The lewd comic possibilities are destroyed because it's filmed like it was from a thriller, not a comedy, which makes the scene sick and creepy, not hilarious.  Also, the film is rated R and has foul language and debauchery running throughout, but the crude words and innuendo here never accentuates the comedy in any way.  There is desperation in the way SEMI-PRO tries a bit too hard to be foul mouthed; the frequent f-bombs seem incongruously forced here. 

And then there is the utterly superfluous subplot involving Monix and his former flame (Tierney), which is played for sweetness and schmaltzy dramatic value that seems like it was from a whole different movie.  The way the film tries to balance the sheer inanity of Moon’s story with the more somber and serious plot involving Monix trying to recapture past love is oddly cobbled together and hurts the film overall.  The problem here is that Tierney looks withered and bored stiff and her character’s involvement in Monix’s story is then threaded into the larger story of the Tropics becoming a good team to prove to themselves and the world that they’re “winners”.  The tone and approach here is all wrong: imagine a tacked on and uncalled for level of dramatic genuineness in ANCHORMAN.  See what I’m getting at?  These types of films need to be unhinged, madcap, and freewheeling farces to truly work.  Authenticity and sincerity has no place here. 

Because of this, SEMI-PRO simply can’t be held in the same high regard as Ferrell’s past works of knee-slapping shenanigans like ANCHORMAN and TALLADEGA NIGHTS.  Yes, many of the jokes here sputter, but Ferrell’s incredibly likable schtick is still infectious as he continues to demonstrate here how far he’s willing to go to get a laugh out of audience members.  Yet, the film’s choice to be both a rags-to-riches – and cliché ridden – sports film with a heart and an acerbic and infantile Ferrell-injected farce simply does not work.   As Ron Burgundy might have said if in the audience watching SEMI-PRO, “By the beard of Zeus!  This comedy is not the rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud slam dunk I was expecting.”

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