LITTLE ROCK Will Ferrell fans probably couldn't care less that Semi-Pro fails to take full advantage of an extraordinarily rich premise. The actual story of the American Basketball Association, the '70s sideshow league that introducedus to Dr. J, the three-point field goal and the slamdunk contest, is so wild and unlikely that its stories hardly need comic exaggeration. (Terry Pluto's 1990 oral history of the league, Loose Balls - which apparently influences the look, if not the plot, of the film - is a very funny book.)
They only wonder if Ferrell inhabits his signature man-childpersona, that of the leering and irrationally self-confident goon - variations on which he plays in Anchorman, Blades of Glory and Talledega Nights - or if he has gone off on an-other acting frolic, as he does in Winter Passing or Stranger Than Fiction. They may be reassured, if they haven't already been put at ease by the slew of commercials for Anheuser-Busch and Old Spice featuring Ferrell as his Jackie Moon character that have appeared since the Super Bowl. Semi-Pro is a Will Ferrell movie, albeit probably not a terribly memorable one.
It's still funny in the same sort of archly silly, profane yet innocent way of Anchorman, etc., are, but it lacks the freshness and subtext of social commentary of those films. There's something about Semi-Pro that feels incomplete and obligatory, a failure to latch onto the significant details of the milieu being sent up. Sports stories are inherently undramatic, in part because the possible outcomes are limited. The heroes will either win or lose in such a way that we can perceive them as having won.
The best sports films - Slapshot, Bull Durham - seem to be comedies rooted in recognizable reality that allow us to enjoy the inherent absurdities and ironies of the day-to-day practice of sport. The mere fact that adults are paid to play (and worry about) games in which fans invest themselves deeply is itself a fertile situation.
Broad comedy is always a dangerous gambit, and to be more than sporadically successful it needs to be based on more than vulgar hyperbole. Despite a talented and touchingly committed cast, this is a challenge Semi-Pro only sometimes meets. In a way, the best thing about the movie is the Jackie Moon character's back story: He's a sub-Motown (hence the Flint, Mich., setting) one-hit wonder who bought an ABA franchise incongruously called The Tropics with his windfall. Knowing next to nothing about basketball, he has inserted himself into the starting lineup as a power forward. He's also the team's coach and resident marketing genius.
He's also the general manager, and the team is stocked with the usual assortment of misfits - a Balkan center with no English, a flaky hard-drinking forward who resembles, in style if not game, former Indiana Pacercharacter Bob Netolicky and a slick point guard called Coffee Black (Andre Benjamin) who's the only competent player on the team. For his part, Moon isn't terrifically concerned about winning - in his view, basketball is just something to kill the time before the Tropics hit the nightclubs.
That changes when it's announced the league will be absorbed into the dominant National Basketball Association - and that only its top four teams will survive the merger. With something to play for, Moon makes an important personnel decision. He trades the team's washing machine for a veteran with NBA experience, the all but washed up Eddie Monix (Woody Harrelson), whose gritty professionalism clashes with the rest of the team.
If you've seen any of the ubiquitous trailers you've already been treated to some of the movie's best moments (some of which didn't make it into the final cut). If you're disposed to like Ferrell's work, you'll enjoy his funky disco character, and the soundtrack is a hoot. Firsttime director Kent Alterman neither distinguishes nor disgraces himself, and while some of the sports photography looks right, few of the actors seem at home on the court. (Ferrell is appropriately goofy.) Better are the turns by Will Arnett as a suave former player turned color commentator and Maura Tierney, who classes the film up just by appearing.
Harmless mild fun, Semi-Pro is just all right. Some will greet it as better than nothing.
MovieStyle, Pages 39, 44 on 02/29/2008