Tuesday 1 July 2008

Semi-Pro (2008)

Tuesday 1 July 2008
Director: Kent Alterman
Writer: Scott Armstrong

Cast: Will Ferrell (Jackie Moon), Woody Harrelson (Ed Monix), Andre Benjamin (Clarence Withers), Maura Tierney (Lynn), Andy Richter (Bobby Dee), Andrew Daly (Dick Pepperfield), Will Arnett (Lou Redwood), David Koechner (Alan), Rob Corddry (Kyle), Matt Walsh (Father Pat), Patti LaBelle (Jackie's Mom), Tim Meadows (Cornelius Banks), Jackie Earle Haley (Dukes), Kristen Wiig (Bear Trainer Girl), Jay Phillips (Scootsie Double Day), Josh Braaten (Twiggy Munson), Peter Cornell (Vakidis), Ian Roberts (San Antonio Spurs Coach), DeRay Davis (Bee Bee Ellis), Pat Kilbane (Petrelli), Artis Gilmore (Restaurant Customer #1) & George Gervin (Restaurant Customer #2)

The owner/coach/player of a semi-pro basketball team has to lead them to success, or face being disbanded...

I'd hoped Will Ferrell would tackle more varied projects post-Stranger Than Fiction, but he seems depressingly content to dish up variations on a theme. So here comes another sporting comedy (basketball to follow racing and ice skating), with Ferrell as one Jackie Moon (loud-mouth egotistical idiot, sound familiar?), set in Anchorman's '70s period. Semi-Pro has no wit, no invention, no style, no individuality, and no laughs. The only thing about it that made me smile is knowing audiences didn't fall for Ferrell's trick again -- as the film took a worldwide haul of just $39 million. Or was that because it was inexplicably given an R rating in the US?

Jackie Moon is a one-hit wonder whose popular song "Love Me Sexy" earned him the cash to buy the Flint Tropics basketball team, becoming their owner/coach/player and contentedly languishing in the bottom-half of the American Basketball Association (ABA) league. Unfortunately, it's announced that the ABA is to amalgamate with the NBA, and only the top four ABA teams will survive this merger. Can Jackie inspire his Tropics to greatness, with the help of half-decent acquisition Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) -- who was exchanged for a washing machine?

It's not a bad premise, albeit a plot that would occur to anyone with half a brain, but Semi-Pro just gets everything wrong. At a basic level, kiddie ice hockey movie The Mighty Ducks has ten times the excitement and dramatic stakes of Semi-Pro. You just never care about the Flint Tropics, don't like any of the players (I actually grew to hate show-off Jackie Moon), and the film doesn't create any sense of momentum in the all-important basketball games. Heck, even Dodgeball was more electrifying as a sports movie.

None of that would matter (well, potentially) if Semi-Pro had the decency to plug its sporting deficiencies with hearty belly-laughs. But this has to be the most unfunny film I've seen in a long, long time. Ferrell is on autopilot, hamstrung by a character even less amusing than Talladega Nights' Ricky Bobby and without the identity of Anchorman's Ron Burgundy. It's just Ferrell in a sweatband, shouting and acting like a petulant kid. Someone stick him in a corner, please.

Harrelson's presence gave me hope for a Kingpin-style sting to the humour, but he wanders through the movie apparently searching for the gags, too. As Monix, he's given a bigger storyline than Moon in some ways -- but the arrival of an old flame, in a romantic subplot, doesn't work in the slightest. That said, the film's sole laugh comes from that situation, as his lover's husband takes perverse delight in his wife having an affair with his basketball idol. Andre Benjamin (a.k.a Andre 3000, lead singer of OutKast) also co-stars as the Tropics' only truly talented player, and gets a little subplot about defecting to a rival team, but I'll be damned if I can even remember much about it. My eyes were glazing over by that stage.

Basically, Semi-Pro is a serious stumble for Ferrell, and its box-office under-performance hopefully a sign audiences are tiring of his egotistical man-child characters. It's amazing he's gotten away with tweaking a basic formula film after film for so long, but surely even he realizes it's time to move on from the sports-comedy genre. Will Ferrell's always been overrated -- having only delivered 3 decent film performances (Elf, Anchorman, Stranger Than Fiction) -- and Semi-Pro finds him at the mercy of a flat script by Scot Armstrong (Road Trip/Starsky & Hutch) and unremarkable direction from Kent Alterman (his debut, after exec-producing crap like Son Of The Mask).

Overall, don't waste your time on this stinker. It doesn't work as a straight sporting drama, has no worthwhile characters to invest in, and the 93-minutes drag on for an eternity. I can count the vaguely-amusing moments on one hand, and the laughs on one finger: the middle one.

New Line Cinema
93 minutes