One can argue that Anchorman and Talladega Nights represent Will Ferrell’s crowning comic achievements to date. The former offered a send-up of ’70s culture and convention. The latter elevated the sports spoof to an art form. So it’s easy to see why Semi-Pro might have sounded like a nifty idea when it was pitched. In theory, it combines the best of both formulas.
Ferrell stars here as Jackie Moon, an affably oblivious dabbler in disco whose one hit, “Love Me Sexy,” provided him with the financial wherewithal to purchase his own professional basketball team. The year is 1976, and the end is near for the American Basketball Association, which is about to be absorbed by the NBA. Hence Moon’s first big problem: Officials have decided only the top four ABA teams will come along in the season-end merger. His team, the Flint Tropics, is in last place as the movie begins.
But there’s a second hurdle the Afro’d owner/player/coach/promoter must clear to save his franchise from extinction: He needs to fill at least 2000 seats per game for the rest of the season. This will necessitate an increase in attendance of roughly, oh, 2000 percent per night.
By contrast with these tasks, the challenge faced by writer Scot (Starsky & Hutch) Armstrong and first-time director Ken Alterman seems relatively simple: They simply need not to get in Ferrell’s way as he turns the patented Hollywood Cinderella story on its head. Nonetheless, the filmmakers meet with less success than does their main character.
Moon considers himself a born showman, and channels all the brain power at his command into creating crowd-attracting gimmicks. He wrestles a bear. He announces a Free Corn Dog Night. In one of the film’s funnier stunts, he attempts to leap over a line of cheerleaders on roller skates, Evel Knievel-style. However, most of these boneheaded promotion gags have a decidedly throwaway feel to them. They’re the kind of bits you’d normally expect to find under Extras when the film comes out on DVD.
The job of whipping the team into winning shape falls to Woody Harrelson. Moon trades the Tropics’ washing machine for Harrelson’s character, an aging vet who’s bounced around the ABA and NBA for years and even boasts a championship ring — though he earned it sitting on the Celtics’ bench. The process of transforming the squad into a scoring machine is pivotal to a story like this. But when it comes to doing anything new or interesting with the training sequences, the filmmakers drop the ball. The twist, I suppose, is that the Tropics’ dream isn’t to come in first, but rather to scrape their way to fourth place — just good enough to make the NBA cut. But this is a variation on the “comeback” theme from which, again, Alterman and company fail to wrest a whole lot of laughs.
Semi-Pro’s shortcomings aren’t primarily Ferrell’s. Viewed in isolation from the rest of the film, his performance has all the loopy charm we’ve come to expect from one of these roles. His hair is gigantic. His shorts are teeny. Though there are moments when he’s just pointlessly dribbling, the actor mainly seems to be lacking someone to pass off to. Ferrell is a team player, and this time his writer and director all but strand him.
In his best pictures, he’s had a strong partner — John C. Reilly in Talladega Nights, for example — or an entire second string of brilliant ball carriers. Think back to Anchorman and the memorable moments that were, in fact, the work of Ron Burgundy’s San Diego news team — Steve Carell, David Koechner and Paul Rudd. The rival news outfit included Vince Vaughn, for God’s sake. Ditto Old School.
What prevents Semi-Pro from rising to the level of full-court fun is the filmmakers’ failure to cast it carefully — and, as a consequence, to reap the comic dividends of a set full of seasoned improvisers. Alterman and Armstrong make way too many rookie moves, and, as a result, Ferrell’s latest isn’t in the same league as his finest.