“Baby, who wants to lick me sexy? Baby, love me sexy!” Dulcet Will Ferrell will never be, a point underscored as he opens his latest sports-movie spoof with a song. Before you start worrying that he means to rework the bad idea that constituted last year’s Will-Ferrell-sports-movie-clone-without-Will-Ferrell-or-sports (Walk Hard), the camera pulls out to reveal that he’s performing on a basketball court, not a stage. But before you start thinking, “Phew!”, he appears in short-shorts and a gigantic afro wig that’s actually worse than it sounds.
The joke this time is Will Ferrell as a basketball player in 1976. Actually, and not so interestingly, he’s a very wealthy amateur named Jackie Moon who made a bunch of money on a one-hit (“Love Me Sexy”) and used it, Mark Cuban-style, to buy a team. And quite because this is a Will Ferrell movie, the excess goes on and on: not only does Jackie own the team, he also coaches and plays on it. And not only does he coach and play on it, he also promotes it (“Free Gerbil Night!”) and manages its business affairs.
This means that he’s the fellow who heads to the league meeting to learn that the ABA, where his team is located, is being folded into the more profitable NBA. The catch is that only the top money-making four teams will be so folded, the rest will be abandoned. But because Jackie’s team, the Flint, Michigan Tropics, is entirely dreadful, culling maybe four or five fans a night, chances that it will make the cut are less than slim. When his team worries out loud, Jackie reassures them that he’s got the situation in hand: “Think of me as Bambi’s mother,” he says, leaving one player concerned (“Didn’t Bambi’s mother die?”) and another, Coffee Black (André Benjamin), confounded (“Who the fuck is Bambi?”).
Hoping to improves ticket sales by actually winning games, Jackie rejiggers the starting lineup by signing erstwhile Flint denizen Monix (Woody Harrelson), a benchwarmer for the Celtics, now beleaguered by a bad knee and traded for a washing machine. The team enjoys an oh-so-wondrous winning streak, narrated by an exceedingly smarmy local sportscaster named Lou (a poorly used Will Arnett), rendered mostly in lazy-movie-making montages. But even as the team ascends, Jackie begins to resent Monix, whose training regimens (essentially, drilling the players work until they “throw up,” a gimmick that yields exactly the gag you think it will) have in fact improved the team’s fortunes. No surprise, Mr. Love Me Sexy is entirely insecure and prone to act out in big-baby ways.
For viewers who are already tired of the Will-Ferrell-sports-spoof (which had its first bloom in Kicking & Screaming, then went full repetitive throttle with the NASCAR movie and the figure skating movie), the new installment is more of the same. For those who love the films, it is also… more of the same.
What makes any of it worth thinking about is the wall the formula appears to have hit, and the resulting glimmers of desperation. Two issues arise in this film that have not troubled the previous versions: a sort of straight romance and a black man. For the first, Monix is partly motivated to return to Flint because he left behind a sweetheart. Lynn (Maura Tierney) is saddled with being the sensible person in this mess and is righteously angry at Monix for leaving her (though her credibility is surely undermined by the fact that she’s still living in Flint and worse, coupled with super-dorky Monix fan Kyle [Rob Corddry], whose every appearance is like screechy chalk on a blackboard). The course of their relationship, awkwardly inserted in between Will Ferrell’s raunchy man joking, is predetermined, but its suggestion that any sanity or sentiment exists in this movie’s world is jarring.
Even more jarring is Coffee Black. He stands in vaguely for the emergence of the black superstar in basketball during the 1970s, using terms like “jivin’” and earning interest from the NBA once his scoring earns him a little publicity. In an alternate universe, Coffee Black’s story might have provided a more interesting movie hook. Benjamin is a charismatic performer and Coffee Black’s shorthand development as a team player is semi-convincing. In yet another alternate universe, Monix’s generous decision to train up his star player and teammate to alley oop is a mildly amusing in-joke: the white man who couldn’t jump comes up with the answer (not to be confused with The Answer).
But even granting these finer comedic points, the fundamental race gag remains Jackie Moon’s appropriative persona: from the fro to reputed sexual prowess to the Rod-Stewart-Right-Said-Fred-Justin-Timberlakey pop tune, Jackie’s vast neediness and ego overwhelm not only Coffee Black, but also the rest of Semi-Pro.