It would be easy to blame the failure of Semi-Pro on Will Ferrell (and trust me it is a failure), after all he’s already wrung this sports comedy thing dry and yet he refuses to stop doing it. He probably has it coming. I’m not going to do that though, because the movie’s crash and burn has very little to do with Will, and everything to do with everyone else who seems to have no idea what to do with him or even how to write a decent comedy script, if indeed screenwriter Scot Armstrong was actually writing comedy when he first put fingers to keyboard and started typing.
The script in question is about an ABA basketball team called the Flint Tropics. It’s 1976, attendance is down, and the ABA is in the tank; so the league arranges a merger with the NBA. There is of course a catch. Only the top four teams in the league will be allowed to join the NBA, the rest of the ABA, including the currently last place Tropics, will be dissolved. Jackie Moon, the team’s star player, owner, and coach, won’t stand for it, so he trades an old washing machine for a washed up former NBA point guard named Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), and convinces the gang of misfits he calls his basketball team to fight for fourth place and a berth in the big time.
It’s a premise rife with comedic opportunity, but Semi-Pro never seems sure it even is a comedy. In fact, there are two entirely different movies going on here. The first is a screwball parody movie starring Will Ferrell, and the second is a serious sports drama starring Woody Harrelson, complete with a go-nowhere romantic subplot and a plucky team which fights back against the odds. Harrelson seems to have no idea he’s in a comedy, and so he wrings his character for all the dramatic pathos he can get out of the script. Granted, there’s not very much, but you can’t fault Harrelson for trying. Maybe he’d have figured out that he was in a comedy if Armstrong had bothered to write him some jokes.
Of course why bother to write gags for Woody Harrelson when you’re not coming up with anything funny for Will Ferrell either. Director Kent Alterman thinks that simply having Will Ferrell in short shorts and an afro is funny on its own, and for about the first ten seconds of the film it is. Once that initial chuckle is over with the movie has absolutely nowhere to go, yet Alterman keeps delivering long, lingering shots of Ferrell in his 70s basketball attired, as if giving us more time to laugh over and over and over again at Will’s handband controlled hair will accomplish something. Sorry Kent, at some point you’ve got to give your audience more than that.
Semi-Pro has the uncanny ability to suck the life right out of itself. Even the scenes you may have laughed at in the commercials are rendered less funny in context. That’s not to say there aren’t any laughs in the movie. Andrew Daly is consistently hilarious as the team’s bewildered, plucky announcer Dick Pepperfield and Ferrell manages to improv a couple of decent moments. Semi-Pro also achieves a couple of fairly hilarious gags about things specific to the 70s. Pong jokes and the discovery of the alley oop stand out in particular. Just don’t expect more than an occasional chuckle. Those moments are few and far between in this jumbled mess of a movie. Most of the jokes are only half-written and it’s rare that any of the visual gags have a real payoff. The sole consistently good thing about it is the soundtrack’s funky, retro-disco music which pounds out of the speakers to a pleasant beat. The movie’s title song “Love Me Sexy” is surprisingly catchy, in a weird way, and though the movie didn’t leave much of an impression I found myself walking out the front door humming and gyrating comedically for my wife on the way to the car. For some reason, she did not find this particularly amusing. I guess Will Ferrell isn’t the only one who misses every now and then.
I just can’t bring myself to blame Ferrell for this mess. Armstrong’s script literally gives him absolutely nothing to work with and Alterman’s clueless direction seems engineered primarily to drag this thing out as long as he can. I’m certain there’s nothing Ferrell or any of the cast could have done to save this project, except perhaps have the good sense not to make it. Will’s upcoming slate of movies is, for the moment, entirely bereft of derivative sports comedies. If he’s smart, it’ll stay that way. I went in wanting to like Semi-Pro, but there’s no excusing it. This is the spot where the bottom drops out of Ferrell’s annual adventure in to sports mockery. Good riddance and on to something better.