Semi-Pro (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to comedy, Will Ferrell is a Jeckyl & Hyde. When he's "on," he can be hilarious, but when he's off, he's like a drunk at a bar yelling loud, unfunny jokes at his equally inebriated buddies. And, while those guys might laugh at him, they're the only ones. Unfortunately, for Semi-Pro, Ferrell is that guy at the bar. This movie struggles for laughs, in part because the writing is lazy with too much of the humor being obvious and easily telegraphed, and in part because Semi-Pro is obsessed with being a sports film rather than merely parodying one. Admittedly, both approaches have been done so often that it's difficult to find a fresh angle, but there would seem to be more unplowed territor in the latter category than the former. Nevertheless, that's not where first-time director Kent Alterman and screenwriter Scot Armstrong take this movie. Instead of a satire, they give us a tired, tedious victory-for-the-underdog story, and the unevenness of Ferrell's comedy makes it less appealing.

Semi-Pro does a solid job of recreating a pop culture vision of the 1970s. This may not have been how it actually was, but it's how movies and television remember it - brash, outrageous, and over-the-top. Jackie Moon (Ferrell) fits right in. He's the owner/player-coach for the Flint (Michican) Tropics, a flailing ABA franchise with a losing record and an empty stadium. Word comes down that the ABA is merging with the NBA, but there's a catch: only the best four ABA teams will be allowed to move on; the rest will be disbanded. Jackie is determined to do anything and everything to make sure that the Tropics move from the basement to the #4 position. His first move to achieve that aim is to trade for aging superstar Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson). But will Monix be a divisive force or a unifying one? And how will his volatile relationship with Flint resident Lynn (Maura Tierney) impact his ability to make one last contribution?

Ulimately, perhaps the biggest surprise about Semi-Pro is its focus on sincerity over humor. The production strives for heart at the expense of its funny bone. Even in failed comedies, it's possible to see where the jokes are supposed to be, and there are surprisingly few evident in Semi-Pro. This movie wants to be seen as a feel-good sports story; that's why the focus gradually shifts from the fatuous Jackie to the more "serious" Monix. The obvious problem, of course, is that sports underdog stories have become so commonplace that for one to succeed, it needs an emotional anchor with more weight than Semi-Pro is capable of providing. When all is said and done, it's difficult to care about Jackie, Monix, or Coffee Black (Andre Benjamin) - they're caricatures. By transplanting these characters from a pure comedy, where they would be at home, into a semi-serious hybrid, neither they nor the film works.

Structually, Semi-Pro is oddly constructed, with bits and pieces seemingly thrown in at random either to beef up the comedic content (Lynn's masturbating boyfriend, random bear attacks) or to provide character development. Perhaps the most odd appendage is Lynn. Her presence is intended to make Monix more "real" and to give him something to strive for beyond going out on a high note but, after her introduction, she appears in only a handful of scenes. It's easy to guess that a lot of Maura Tierney's material ended up on the cutting room floor but what remains is so haphazard and incomplete that it's not really worth having the character in the movie at all.

As a comedian, Will Ferrell is at his best when he's working with a funny screenplay. His seat-of-the-pants improvisation often comes across more as weird than hilarious (he has a tendency to drag out effective comedic material too long). Although director Ken Alterman achieves a degree of moderation in this regard, the script is weak and it hampers Ferrell's ability to play someone who's more than the loud drunk at the bar. Jackie Moon crosses the line from funny to annoying and he's never sympathetic - merely pathetic. On the whole, if you're on the prowl for a Ferrell yuk-fest, you'd do better renting one of his more successful comedies than spending money on this faux sports dud. Only die-hard fans of the SNL alumn will find anything worthwhile here.

Semi-Pro (United States, 2008)

Director: Kent Alterman
Cast: Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, Maura Tierney, Andy Richter
Screenplay: Scot Armstrong
Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1