Sports movies have their own tropes and clichés. There’s always the underdog team, the former star hoping for a comeback, the rising star looking for his break, the down-and-out owner looking to make his team profitable and the big play at the end which redeems everything. Semi-Pro, Will Ferrell’s new vehicle, hits all of those conventions and at the same time adds in a new one, that of Will Ferrell.
Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, a one-hit wonder from 1970s, who used his money to indulge in his second passion, basketball. He is the owner/coach/power forward for the Flint Tropics, an ABA team facing extinction as the league prepares to fold and be absorbed into the NBA. Moon is a horrible player, knowing nothing about the actual mechanics of the game. Instead, he focuses on odd marketing ploys to get a crowd and his mantra of “Everybody Loves Everybody” designed to make the players all feel like a family.
Now, here’s where one of those tropes comes in. The top four teams from the ABA are the teams that are going to survive. The Tropics, of course, will need to struggle in order to make it into fourth and become a real franchise. Do we think they’ll make it? Naturally. Along the way, though, they pick up Monix (Woody Harrelson, looking a lot like his Kingpin character of Munson) in a trade for a washing machine. Monix is the former star (he has a championship ring from his time playing with the Celtics) who needs this team to restore his self-esteem (that and his former flame, a completely wasted Maura Tierney, also happens to live in Flint). Playing the role of the upcoming hot shot is Andre Benjamin as Coffee Black, the fastest guy on the team and the only one with a real shot at breaking in to the NBA.
But really, this is Ferrell’s show and if you’re a fan of his, this is slam dunk. If you’re not, and I count myself amongst those, the scenes with Ferrell amount to a bunch of mugging and gags in search of a story to service. He overplays his role, which seems to be written specifically for his type of humor. Not surprising when you consider this comes to us from Scot Armstrong, the same guy who wrote Old School and Starsky & Hutch.
Ironically, the best performance in the film is Harrelson’s, who seems to be playing it straight. It’s almost like first time director Kent Alterman had two different films in mind, one a balls out slapstick farce and the other a semi-sweet pastiche trying to capture the same flavor as a film like Mystery, Alaska. These two genres don’t mesh well, and ultimately, it feels like everyone involved is trying to hit the bar set by the granddaddy of sports films, Slap Shot. The problem is Semi-Pro falls well short of that high water mark.
For me, Semi-Pro elicits few real laughs, instead relying on language and scatological shenanigans to garner audience reaction. The only real surprise moment involves a running joke which plays off one of Moon’s odd marketing schemes. The biggest problem here is that a little Ferrell goes a long way. He has a hard time carrying a film himself, working better as a comic relief. In Semi-Pro, we get the opposite – Ferrell is in charge and Harrelson plays the serious relief. Flip those around and this could have become a classic. Instead, we get 90 minutes for the die hard fans and not much for the rest of us.