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Ferrell stretches in latest uniform comedy

by Glen Baity

If you like a little sadness with your slapstick, this might be the movie for you.

Will Ferrell, the Dean of the Frat Pack, straps on a headband, a respectable white-boy ‘fro and a pair of short shorts in this story about the end of the American Basketball Association. Semi-Pro unfolds in 1976, during the league’s final season, after which four of its teams will be absorbed into the much larger, more financially sound National Basketball Association.

Flint, Michigan’s Tropics, sadly, are not expected to be among them, despite the best efforts of their owner, coach, star player, announcer and dance choreographer Jackie Moon (Ferrell). Upset at the prospect of the Tropics’ demise (since his music career tanked, it’s his only reason for living), Jackie tries to wrangle a spot for his squad among the big boys. Out of desperation, he trades the team’s washing machine for a washed-up point guard (Woody Harrelson) and tries to win his way into the NBA.

This is Ferrell’s fourth sports-themed comedy, and he approaches Semi-Pro with the same abandon he does everything else. If you generally dislike his brand of humor, suffice it to say this one won’t win you over. That doesn’t mean, however, that you’ll like this one if you generally consider yourself a Ferrell fan. Semi-Pro is kind of a strange film – its script makes plenty of room for its star’s trademark juvenile, perfectly-timed comedy, but first-time director Kent Alterman approaches it with a weightier style than is probably warranted by the material.

Indeed, Whenever Ferrell steps away for a moment, Semi-Pro veers off for a melancholy detour. These mostly involve Harrelson’s aging bruiser, whose career apex was watching from the bench while his fellow Celtics won an NBA title. He finds a sort-of kindred spirit in “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin), the only true talent in a Tropics uniform, who gets a longshot chance at a career with a last-minute trade to the San Antonio Spurs.

The scenes between these two, while they have their own melodramatic appeal, feel like they’re from a separate movie, one that’s a little more serious, more clichéd and considerably less fun. The timbre of that film bleeds over into the slapstick Ferrell comedy, which looks a lot more glossy and somber than Anchorman.

Speaking of which: The film goes back to the velvet goldmine of the 1970s for much of his humor, and while the result is funny enough, it feels more labored than I’m used to seeing from this troupe. Semi-Pro establishes its time period from the very beginning, but nevertheless feels compelled to remind you of its funkiness every step of the way by brandishing fondue sets, Pong, disco beats and butterfly collars. There are also a few super-lazy jokes about the future that a child could write – in a conversation about “the little kid in the Jackson 5,” Ferrell pithily observes, “I’m telling you, there’s something not right about him.” These add to an inescapable aura of forced zaniness that doesn’t play well anywhere, least of all in a Will Ferrell movie, where the laughs usually seem to come with a bit less effort.

That could be thanks to Scot Armstrong, a hit-or-miss comedy writer who gave the world Old School, but also one of last year’s worst movies in The Heartbreak Kid. That’s not to say I didn’t laugh at the jokes in Semi-Pro – I did, and often. It’s just that by the end of my drive home from the theater, I’d forgotten what nearly all of them were. Either I’m advancing in age or the funny this time around just isn’t that memorable; draw your own conclusions.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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