It seems that every year, comedic giant Will Ferrell comes out with a new vehicle to exhibit his talents. For the past few years, those movies have been getting a little worse, and with the exception of “Stranger Than Fiction,” his extraordinary foray into drama, it looked as though the magic has faded.
His newest flick, “Semi-Pro,” is similar in its demonstration of Will Ferrell-isms (yelling for no reason and using exuberant adjectives to describe things), but it has more of soul than his recent fodder.
After his 2004 homage to 1970s news casting celebrities in “Anchorman,” Will Ferrell’s star skyrocketed to box office heaven. He began to appear everywhere, and each summer, we could expect another Ferrell explosion. He started to make sportsrelated films, such as the NASCAR parody “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and the ice skating farce “Blades of Glory.” Those films fell more into the spoof genre, and the originality and the heart seen in “Anchorman” seemed to fade.
For “Semi-Pro,” Ferrell takes us back into the seventies, and it is obvious that this is the perfect period for him. The movie centers upon Jackie Moon (Ferrell), the owner/coach/player of the Flint (Michigan) Tropics, a “rag-tag” team in the now defunct American Basketball Association. Moon’s team is in danger of being dropped after a merger with the NBA is announced by the ABA’s commissioner (played by Ferrell alum David Koechner). A deal is made that the top four winning teams can be absorbed into the NBA, setting up the journey for Moon and his motley crew.
Among that crew is Clarence “Coffee” Black, played wonderfully by rapper/actor André Benjamin. Benjamin flows perfectly into the role – he seems to have a natural talent for acting, especially in the comedy genre. In order to save the team, Moon trades the team’s washing machine for a fictional former Celtic named Ed Monix – played quite unsuccessfully by Woody Harrelson. A combination of a useless character and a sloppy performance, Monix just comes off as pointless from beginning to end. His character is only functional in the sense that he brings the team together, but the attempt to develop his character is just simply annoying. Monix’s backstory is introduced, involving a love story with an equally miscast Maura Tierney (“ER”). Harrelson and Tierney are the biggest flaws in the movie, and the omission of their subplot was greatly desired.
For fans of Ferrell, his performance will not disappoint. He’s essentially been playing the same character in every film up until this point: the endearing man-child. Jackie Moon is a conflicted man, and his conflicts are often hilarious. He doesn’t have archetypal flaws – instead, Moon’s biggest affliction is his inability to throw up. The discovery of this predicament is one of the funniest scenes in the film, and this can be credited to Ferrell’s flawless timing and the director’s terrific ability to set up and fulfill the gag. “Semi-Pro” is Kent Alterman’s directorial debut. Previously, he was the executive producer of the brilliantly comic yet cancelled cult TV show “Strangers With Candy.” Fans of that show will actually see a lot of the comedy translated into the movie’s gags. There’s a certain element that Ferrell adds to each of his films, but the right director needs to be in place, and it looks like Alterman was a great choice.
The most memorable aspect of the movie is its perfectly cast supporting characters. Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”) and Andrew Daly (“Mad TV”) are wonderful as the Tropics’ colorful commentators. Daly is especially superb, using the stereotypical announcer voice to comment on the most ridiculous topics.
Also memorable is the peculiar casting of Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”) as the strung out hippie named Duke, who unexpectedly wins the half court challenge. Unfortunately, Duke has a little trouble cashing his gigantic-sized check at the bank. Jackie Moon, trying to confuse Duke because he doesn’t have the $10 thousand to endorse the check, tells him to try a bigger bank.
All of these elements, such as the downright hilarious supporting cast and the terrific ways that Alterman and Ferrell develop the gags in the movie, all lead up to its ultimate achievement. Unlike Ferrell’s previous attempts at sports comedies that just ended up being infantile spoofs, “Semi-Pro” is actually a really funny sports movie. It’s comparable to classics such as “Major League” and “Slap Shot,” and we haven’t seen anything in that vein for a long time.
Ferrell has truly found his niche in the 1970s and in the childishly irresistible role of Jackie Moon. The movie follows the usual underdog formula of most films, but instead of laughing at them, “Semi-Pro” is laughing with them. This isn’t as great as those previously mentioned comedy classics, but it’s a smart direction for Ferrell’s career in his favorite genre.
This movie probably won’t do as well as his past comedies – its R rating will take away his large teenage audience – but it’s the better choice of the horrid array of Hollywood mainstream that’s currently ruining our theaters.