Ferrell and his new team suit up for another shot at comedy gold
The Will Ferrell franchise continues to be one of the more intriguing amusements in contemporary American movies. And Semi-Pro, characteristic as both loony Ferrell vehicle and rambunctious gathering of assorted “comedy mafia” performers, puts the pros and cons—and decidedly mixed delights—of the Ferrell-and-friends industry fully on display.
As a sports-flick parody, Semi-Pro is predictably hit-and-miss—plenty of comic fizz, but a lot of it just a belch away from outright fizzle. And Ferrell’s Jackie Moon, an outlandish combination of ‘70s pop star and player/coach/ mogul in a now-defunct pro basketball league (the old NBA-challenging ABA), is central to the muddle as well as the mirth.
Visually, Jackie just may be the most genuinely iconic figure in Ferrell’s emerging gallery of clueless pop-cultural egotists. But those travesties of freak-out fashions from the 1970s are wearing pretty thin these days. Spoofing the clichés and excesses of that decade has become a cliché in its own right—and leaves much of Semi-Pro in the position of riffing on material that is both tried-and-true and silly and fatuous.
But riffing is something that Ferrell and company are pretty good at, and Semi-Pro manages to percolate fairly steadily as goofy/smart entertainment even as the Jackie Moon story stumbles into just plain goofy. Moon/Ferrell’s farcical rise-and-fall shares significant screen time with a somewhat dissonant comic-romantic subplot involving a veteran pro basketballer (Woody Harrelson) and his estranged lover (Maura Tierney), most of which proves less off-putting once it’s become more or less clear that Scot Armstrong’s (Old School; Starsky & Hutch; The Heartbreak Kid) grab-bag of a screenplay is mixing levels of humor, and styles of comedy, without much regard for any niceties of matching, let alone consistency of tone.
While the vacancies in Armstrong’s script loom unavoidably large, several sorts of comic embroidery suffice in keeping Semi-Pro alive as a diversion of a not entirely marginal sort. Harrelson and Outkast’s André Benjamin are reasonably effective as Moon’s key teammates. And a host of small roles add some unexpected chemistry to the mix: Will Arnett and Andrew Daly as the team’s mismatched broadcasters, Andy Richter as Moon’s lapdog of an assistant, Matt Walsh as a referee who is also a priest, Jackie Earle Haley as a druggy fan of the team, Rob Corddry as a nutty fan and third wheel in the Harrelson-Tierney relationship.
None of it really seems necessary, but that also seems part of the point in this half-inspired extravaganza of self-referential goofing. Most of the film’s points of satire on sports movies were made much more effectively in Slap Shot, a ‘70s film that satirized its own decade as well. But the Semi-Pro bunch, who also rework a scene from The Deer Hunter, seem well aware of that, and are determined to carry on with the riffing just the same.