Upon its original theatrical release in early 2008, Semi-Pro was noted primarily for its status as yet another Will Ferrell sports comedy—his fourth, after Kicking and Screaming (soccer), Talladega Nights (auto racing), and Blades of Glory (figure skating).
Though it wouldn’t hurt to keep Ferrell out of the locker room for a few years or more, Semi-Pro feels less like an attempt to rehash the actor’s recent glories than a leftover. A ramshackle, amusing, forgettable little comedy, it would’ve been a comfier fit five or six years ago, when his star was still on the rise—right after Old School, maybe, or in place of Kicking and Screaming.
In a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD, it sounds as if Ferrell had been vaguely associated with the project (written by Scot Armstrong, who had a hand in Old School) for some time; that he stuck with it after several better comedies is a testament to the film’s likability, as well as its afterthought vibe.
Ferrell stuck it out to play Jackie Moon, the owner, coach, and power forward for the Flint Tropics, a basketball team in the ABA—a less prestigious sibling to the NBA that actually existed in the ‘70s. Jackie isn’t so much delusional or arrogant—that is, the typical Ferrell character traits—as wildly ambitious, a consummate and excitable showman slash con artist who supports his team via attendance-boosting, death-defying stunts.
He works overtime after hearing that the ABA will lose all but a few of its teams to a merger with the NBA, and his players (Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin among them) try to step up their actual basketball skills, desperate to prove their worth. The script smartly downplays the lovable-underdog formula; the big final game is a championship event invented by Jackie: the “Flint Mega-Bowl”. Ferrell’s vigor in announcing this complete fabrication is hilarious.
But despite a lot of incidental laughs, the film never gets a firm handle on the balance between broad comedy and the downtrodden realities of its surroundings. Instead, we get scenes of Flint life mixing with the usual Ferrell requirements (fighting bears, yelling, hitting bottom). The movie doesn’t even know what to do with its bit parts; comic ringers like Will Arnett, Tim Meadows, Andy Richter, and Matt Walsh crowd the margins while Maura Tierney shows up in her well-worn lower-middle-class girlfriend role. This material all works well enough on its own, but fails to create a coherent world for the characters or their story.
The half-realized Semi-Pro arrives on DVD in a two-disc edition featuring both the theatrical and an “unrated” cut of the movie. The longer (by seven or eight minutes) version offers the extra-mild spice of a semi-nude subplot about Jackie’s swinging wife—but the original film is already rated R, so it’s clear these scenes were cut for time and weakness, not for the sake of decency. A few deleted scenes are equally disposable; a collection of improvised bits, especially those between Jackie and genial sports announcer Dick Pepperfield (Andrew Daly), are looser and funnier than the scripted stuff.
These takes, as well as a couple of fake excerpts from a Flint Tropics sports show, showcase Daly’s excellent performance, a perfect counterpart to both Ferrell and Arnett, who plays his colleague. Daly is so believable playing the smiley but wary local sports guy that I had to look up his film credits and make sure he isn’t an actual announcer (he’s not). This poker-faced commitment to quasi-accuracy is missing from much of the rest of the film; the ‘70s setting isn’t quite played for (many) cheap laughs, but the details are cursory instead of note-perfect.
Even the DVD’s extra features coast a little. The ABA sounds like a rich inspiration for material for the filmmakers, who speak of it fondly; surely, then, it deserves more than soundbites cut together for a six-minute, non-chronological “history”. Like so much of the film, the DVD offers lip service to the true story of the ABA and the usual Ferrell comic trappings, only half-succeeding at each.