Will Ferrell seems to have fallen into a groove as of late. Ever since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, his pure comedies have developed their own unique universes, worlds where the actor and his crack team of costars can play and pretend. In Talladega Nights, it was NASCAR. In Blades of Glory, it was the surreal stage of competitive figure skating. Now comes the solid Semi-Pro, a movie that perfectly mimics the debauchery and malaise of the 1970s in all its leisure suit loving, animal fur wearing, pop culture vulgarity. While not as immediately outrageous as his other onscreen turns, Ferrell fulfills the promise of the ultra-wacky premise, delivering another collection of crudities, gaffs, and expletive laced plot twists.
It’s the middle of the Me Decade and ABA basketball is dying. While the other franchises pray for a merger, the Flint Michigan Tropics and their player/coach/owner/former soul star Jackie Moon is having a ball. Sure, his team sucks, and attendance is more than lousy, but he is living his dream. Unfortunately, many of his players don’t share his outsized optimism. They feel their hope of playing professional sports slowly slipping away. When he learns that the NBA will only take four teams, Moon convinces the league to let the best record decide who goes. With his last place Tropics consistently stinking up stadiums around the country, he needs a ringer to help increase his chances. In walks Monix, a former Boston Celtics star whose career has seen better days. With his skills and experience, Moon hopes to capture fourth place. Teammates like Clarence “Coffee” Black aren’t buying the effort, however.
With a collection of period piece beats that perfectly emulate the era of Watergate and wavering morality, and a story that sticks to the standard sports underdog dynamic, Semi-Pro may seem pointless, especially to the culturally clueless. Back before the game was a Jordan and Kobe cavalcade of rock star like sports icons, the American Basketball Association attempted to enliven a seriously struggling sport. With its emphasis on offense and flash, and tendency toward tacky self-promotion (they were in direct competition with the far more established NBA), the 12 teams that made up the two competing conferences gave the three decade old guard a run for their money. An eventual merger in 1976 brought four new teams into the fold, and it is within this last act of negotiated desperation that Semi-Pro is set.
Of course, many will wonder what such a perspective brings to the film, especially when it is humor, not history, that’s important…and it’s a fair question. But what the ABA backdrop adds to Semi-Pro is a sense of inevitability, a reason for the characters to feel at wit’s end throughout the entire story. This helps sell the occasionally outrageous antics that would otherwise overpower everything. First time director Kent Alterman definitely has his work cut out for him here. Not only does he have the expectations of every Ferrell fan on the planet, but there are some die-hard fans out there that will be watching for some manner of ‘fictional’ accuracy (if such a thing is possible). Luckily, much of Scot Armstrong’s script seems to have skirted such struggles, allowing for far more effective improvising from the cast.
And it’s a strong group of performers. Woody Harrelson has been outside the mainstream for the last few years, but his turn as the over the hill Monix is a real return to form. Newcomer Andre “3000” Benjamin is also very believable as the Tropics breakout star, Clarence “Coffee” Black, while current comic sidekicks Rob Corddry, David Koechner, Will Arnet, and Matt Walsh make a nice collection of satiric satellites. There are a couple of wonderful, off the wall surprises as well. Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley shows up as Dukes, a pothead who wins a $10,000 Tropics contest, while Tim Meadows steals his only scene as an injured player who lets go with an unfortunate racial epithet. Together, they generate the kind of genial crassness that carries this movie beyond the standard humor hi-jinx.
Of course, Ferrell is the focus for much of the film, and it’s odd that he’s never given much to do except play the fool. There’s no family issue for him to deal with, no outer circle or sphere of influence working their way inward. Instead, he’s set up as a joke machine, a cartoon creation limited in scope and structure. Heck, he doesn’t even get the girl - Harrelson is rewarded with a relationship with underwritten co-star Maura Tierney. This may cause some in the demo no small amount of consternation. If this is a Ferrell vehicle - and it really doesn’t play like an ensemble, no matter the size of the cast - we want his antics to be more or less front and center. In Semi-Pro‘s case, they are more like slightly to the left.
Still, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had within the confines of these peculiar surroundings. Sports fans may scoff at the various stats, skills, and shots taken, but the end result remains a clever take on the material. Besides, any film that can channel The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and Kansas City Bomber can’t be all bad. Semi-Pro may look like recycled Will Ferrell, outrageous personality and all, but there is an attention to detail and a surreal ‘70s splash that makes it all work. Like a crass Christopher Guest, this former SNL superstar has a way of making even the most unusual environ funny.The old peach basket bop - and its high flying ABA makeover - will never be the same.