Director: Kent Alterman
Starring: Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson. Andre Benjamin, Maura Tierney, Andrew Daly, Will Arnett, Andy Richter, Jackie Earle Haley
Running Time: 91 min.
*½ (out of ****)
Will Ferrell’s sports act has officially gotten very, very tired. When I reviewed Blades of Glory I said that while I enjoyed it, it was probably the last Ferrell sports comedy I could take. Boy was I ever right. In the basketball spoof Semi-Pro it’s as if all the deleted scenes and outtakes from every Ferrell comedy that weren’t funny enough to make final cut were combined into one movie to torture us all. I don’t think I laughed once during this. There may have been a tiny giggle, but definitely not a laugh. Forget about the shot clock. I was too busy watching the actual clock on my wall, waiting painfully for the very long 90 minutes to pass.
To call this Will Ferrell’s worst onscreen outing is almost too kind as the star really phones it in here in a performance of insufferable laziness and egotism. Come to think of it, there aren’t many other characters in the film worth liking or rooting for either. Like Nacho Libre, which assumed just the sight of Jack Black in wrestling attire could sustain a feature length film, this script believes Ferrell with an afro and dressed as a basketball player is the most hilarious concept ever devised.
Now Ferrell finds himself stuck in the same boat as Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler before him. Rejected by audiences when he attempts to stretch as an actor and do more meaningful work, he feels forced to retreat and act in sub-par comedic rip-offs of his earlier films. The film is so standard and predictable it has me fearing that those claiming Hollywood is all out of fresh ideas may be right. But what’s even more frightening is the notion that there are still many sports left Will Ferrell can attempt to send up in his career.
Somewhat arrogantly, the film picks up in the middle of the action in 1976, expecting us to care what happens to Flint, Michigan’s Tropics basketball team of the American Basketball Association, owned and operated by its goofy star forward Jackie Moon (Ferrell). Plans are put forth to merge the ABA into the proposed National Basketball Association and the Tropics, whose record and attendance is abysmal will not be one of the four teams selected to go and instead dissolve. That is unless Moon can find a way for the Tropics to rise from the basement and become the fourth ranked team in the league.
Moon already has his star player in the showy Clarence “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin), but soon he trades up for aging veteran shooting guard Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) who once won a championship ring riding the bench with the Celtics. Nearly the entire film consists of Ferrell entertaining himself with various sight gags and one-liners (hardly any of which has a thing to do with basketball) until we reach “the big game,” which turns out to not be that big at all because screenwriter Scott Armstrong unwisely decides to throw in a late development that makes the game mean essentially nothing.
The film is filled with jokes that either just fall flat or trail into the distance without a punch line or resolution. The script is so lazy at times it seems as if it’s half-completed. The best example of this a gag involving a poker game and gun everyone believes is loaded. The scene goes on for what seems like an eternity and then just kind of fades away, leaving us wondering what the point of the entire thing was, like a tree falling in the forest. A sub-plot involving Monix’s ex-flame (a completely wasted Maura Tierney) and her sexually curious boyfriend seems like it’s out of another movie…one almost as unfunny as this.
Ferrell wrestles a bear (but you knew that from the trailer), players wear eyeliner and vomit, Patti LaBelle shows up. I thought the horror would never end. There a few funny moments though. All of them are provided by Andrew Daly and Will Arnett as a couple of vulgar, clueless announcers. I wished everyone else would just leave the film and let these guys go back and forth for an hour and a half. That would have been entertaining. The only other actor who escapes with his dignity is Harrelson, which isn’t a surprise since he has experience doing this before in a far superior sports comedy, Kingpin.
The best word to describe Will Ferrell in this is “SMUG.” He has a certain smugness in this role that I haven’t seen from him before and I hope I never see again. He plays the part as someone so full of himself it stops becoming funny and crosses the line into being pathetic. He’s just unlikable and you’re more likely to want to see him get injured and his team lose than root for the guy. He’s played hapless, unlikable losers before but something about this performance really rubbed me the wrong way.
I guess it’s a delicate balance between being funny and unlikable and Ferrell doesn’t quite pull it off this time. It’s like watching an unfunny, stand-up act with a performer in love with his own jokes. He pulled it off in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which, incidentally, also took place in the ‘70’s. Maybe the filmmakers thought by setting the film in that decade again they could recapture some of that magic except that movie had a clever script that knew how to exploit that setting. This one thinks that wearing polyester and playing Pong is so funny there’s need for little else.
It’s the dubious directorial debut of Kent Alterman who (get ready for this) has produced such films as A History of Violence and Little Children. Speaking of Little Children, an Oscar nominee from that film, Jackie Earle Haley, appears here as a stoned-out homeless man who makes a big half-time shot. THIS is his follow-up role to an Academy Award nomination. It looks like Burt Reynolds finally has some competition.
Perhaps the funniest thing about the movie is that a PG-13, an R-rated and an unrated version of the film were all released on DVD as if it even makes a difference. I saw the R version and can tell you the profanity and vulgarity did nothing to hurt or heighten my enjoyment of the film. A bad script is a bad script no matter how many four-letter words it contains. Although I described this as a spoof it really isn’t. It actually has the nerve to play it mostly straight and expects us to care what happens to these guys. The result is a terminal lack of laughs and a spoof that becomes what it’s spoofing.
I had a choice between renting this and Meet The Spartans and when it concluded I was left with the sinking feeling I may have actually picked wrong. We’ve seen it coming for a while but now Will Ferrell has officially hit the wall and should reassess the direction he wants his career to take. The best news here is that the movie underperformed at the box office so maybe now he’ll get the message and try to diversify a little bit more in his film choices. As a sports comedy, or any comedy, Semi-Pro shoots a brick.