March 6, 2008

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Semi-Pro (R)
Will Ferrell wants to take his Flint, Michigan, Tropics all the way to the NBA when his minor basketball league prepares to merge with the big boys in Semi-Pro, an occasionally funny but occasionally shockingly unfunny addition to the Ferrell-as-bloated-ego-having-half-wit oeuvre.

Jackie Moon (Ferrell) might have made his name with a disco song called “Love Me Sexy” but his true calling is basketball. And though his Flint Tropics don’t attract big crowds or even play basketball all that well, he’s determined that when his American Baseball Association merges with the NBA, his team will be one of the four to stay alive.

Oh no, they won’t, the ABA’s commissioner tells Jackie. But Jackie convinces the other owners to go along with the idea that the four surviving teams should be chosen based on the teams’ standings at the end of the season. Thus begins Jackie’s quest to make his team number four.

To help Jackie win fourth place, he brings on Monix (Woody Harrelson), a former ABA star who ever so briefly played for the NBA. Though Monix is meant to merely play for the Tropics, the other guys on the team soon decide that, what with his knowledge of the actual rules of the game as well as his skill with heretofore unknown concepts such as “running plays,” Monix should coach as well. (Jackie, who had always coached in addition to playing for the team and owning the team, doesn’t so much understand the game — he’s more of a marketing gimmick guy.)

You’ve probably seen the trailer for Semi-Pro, maybe the one where Jackie Moon decides to fight a bear as part of his ongoing effort to add entertainment to his game nights. Any five to seven minutes of the bear sequence is hilarious, just as the trailer suggests. Ferrell plays the goofball — equal parts George W. Bush and Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show — as expertly as ever, finding the ever stranger and shallower parts of that character’s personality.

And, like any good Ferrell movie, Semi-Pro is full of snort-laugh-inducing humor, much of it coming from random throwaway lines and parodies of sports movie clichés that suddenly go to some unexpected, slightly perverse place. Any scene accentuating Ferrell’s doughiness or the particularly pasty qualities of his legs is likely to cause a chuckle. The subplot that involves Monix romancing ex-girlfriend Lynn (Maura Tierney) while her husband (Rob Corddry), a big Monix fan, approvingly spies on them has its bizarrely humorous moments. Andre Benjamin, who plays on-his-way-up player Coffee Black, gets some good lines. Relentlessly upbeat commentator Dick Pepperfield (Andrew Daly) and washed-up-former-player commentator Lou Redwood (Will Arnett) have some funny bits. Any piece of Semi-Pro chosen at random from its approximately 90 minutes is likely to be a hoot. But somehow the sum of all these parts doesn’t add up to the stupid fun of, say, Anchorman:; The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It isn’t even Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

In between moments of funny will be stretches of unfunny — a scene where some half dozen characters play poker which devolves into a conversation about which of them was “in Nam” and then into a bit with an unloaded gun fired at various people goes from being mildly chuckle-worthy to uncomfortable to shocking in how not funny the bit has become. It’s like watching a couple’s flirtatious banter turn into the bitter attempts to humiliate each other. Slowly, actual laughs become nervous titters followed by embarrassed silence. Usually this kind of painful death is something that happens only at a live performance, to a comedian on stage where there is no opportunity for a rewrite. To watch it in a movie theater gives you the same sense of being in the exact wrong place that you get when you accidentally walk in on someone in the bathroom. Unfortunately for the film, a grimace and a smile are not the same thing. C-

Rated R for language and some sexual content. Directed by Kent Alterman and written by Scot Armstrong, Semi-Pro is an hour and 30 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by New Line Cinema.