What a dreadfully unfunny comedy! Has Will Ferrell made the circuit of sports he can lampoon yet? Can he move on to some different characters and some different ideas that might make us laugh instead of recycling the same character, the same situations, and the same supporting cast in film after endless film? No, I guess he could do a baseball comedy and a football comedy. Better yet, he could do a comedy about football players who get thrown out of the NFL and decide to start a baseball team, so they can stay together and compete together, maintaining their brotherhood. Jeez. I should just shut up. I have a feeling the new Will Ferrell comedy will be announced tomorrow; a film about baseball players who are banned from the sport and have to form a football team in order to stay together and play together, in order to maintain their brotherhood. Coming Summer, 2009. I just lost some money.
“Semi Pro”, the newest Will Ferrell comedy was announced just after the release of “Blades of Glory”, the more memorable, funnier film starring Ferrell and Jon Heder as rival ice skaters who are forced to compete together against Will Arnett and Amy Poehler’s incestuous brother-sister team. At that time, I heard a collective groan. Really? Another sports comedy? Well, calling “Semi Pro” a comedy is being far too kind to this film. This film makes “Blades of Glory”, which has some laughs but is still far from great, look like the comedy equivalent of “Citizen Kane”.
There are a number of things wrong with “Semi Pro”, but first, a look at the story.
Jackie Moon (Ferrell), a disco performer with one hit to his credit, uses that windfall to buy the Flint, Michigan Tropics, a basketball team in the ABA. Jump forward a few years to 1976 and Jackie is excited to learn the ABA will be absorbed into the NBA, but the NBA only wants four teams and the low-attendance Tropics isn’t one of them. Jackie gets the owners to agree to let the top four ABA teams go to the NBA, so he returns home and tries to psyche up his bad team. They freely admit they will never reach the top four, but Jackie’s confidence is inspiring. He can’t let down his rag-tag team of players, including Clarence “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin) (Har! Har!) and Monix (Woody Harrelson), a player who has seen better days but hungers to get back into the NBA. As soon as Monix arrives back in town, he looks up his old girlfriend, Lynn (Maura Tierney) who is now living with one of Monix’s clueless fans, Kyle (Rob Cordry). Then the owners throw in a twist; they will only consider franchises with an average attendance of over 2,000 fans per night. Jackie won’t admit defeat and puts together some crazy promotions to lure in the fans.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Semi Pro” comes in the filmmakers’ conceit that simply dressing the characters up in funny clothes and surrounding them with the icons of the era will make the film funny. The characters do little that would qualify as funny. Apparently, the ABA had a history of staging elaborate and wacky promotions, to lure people into the stadiums. This is the main thrust of the shenanigans Jackie gets involved in. But the set-ups are painful and the comedy falls flat.
The characters say virtually nothing, beyond Moon singing his famous song that would qualify as funny. Ferrell plays his stock character, an egotistical blowhard who is desperate to maintain his status and will do anything to make it happen. So Jackie stages elaborate promotions. But his character is simply pathetic and desperate. Because he doesn’t realize either, it makes his character sad when the filmmakers probably intended this to create laughs.
And the film is rated ‘R’ for language that doesn’t make the film particularly biting, funny, or tasteless in a Farrelly Brothers type of way. To simply hear the characters uttering the F Word repeatedly does not make the characters funny. I am having trouble figuring out why this was even done. An ‘R’ rating means a large number of teenage boys who aren’t industrious enough to sneak into the theater will not be allowed to see this film. This is Ferrell’s core audience and will, no doubt, hurt the film’s box office. Because there is no gross out or raunchy humor to justify the ‘R’, what purpose does it serve?
Then there is the Will Ferrell problem. With the lone exception of “Stranger Than Fiction”, Ferrell has been playing the same character since he made his big breakthrough in “Elf”. In “Talladega Nights” and “Blades of Glory” he plays essentially the same character; athletes who are so enamored of themselves they do everything they can to stop a potential threat to their current status. Now, with “Semi Pro”, he adds Jackie Moon to this roster. Each character is remarkably similar; dumb egotistical blowhards who surround themselves with adoring nincompoops. It was mildly funny in “Talladega Nights” and mildly amusing in “Blades of Glory”, but now in “Semi Pro” there is a definite ‘been there, done that’ feeling to everything we witness on screen. It just seems so recycled. And boring. I almost long for the days of “Bewitched”. My body just tremored uncontrollably in horror.
How much money does one man need? Hasn’t Ferrell collected enough $20 and $30 million dollar paychecks? Ferrell is a funny guy, but he needs to branch out, take some chances, and work with some new people around him. In “Stranger Than Fiction” he did just this, and the result was a strange, funny, unusual film. But it didn’t make huge box office and I think that was because people are so used to seeing the comedian portray the sports buffoon. When they realized this wasn’t going to be a part of “Fiction”, many people stayed away. But for those who took a chance, along with Ferrell, we were rewarded with a funny, unusual, touching performance in a much underrated film. And the actor also got a chance to work with Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Queen Latifah.
I think Ferrell could safely alternate his film choices, and filmmakers would be happy to have him in their projects. He should and could adopt a strategy like many others; make one ‘box office’ picture for every ‘other’ film. So for every “Semi Pro”, we would get a “Stranger Than Fiction”. This would lead many more to appreciate Ferrell’s work. And his work would become richer due to the exposure to a more diverse group of directors. Just looking at the cast and crew who have worked on his films, you realize he likes to work with friends and people he is familiar with. This is admirable, but when this results in the same film repeatedly, it is time for the comedian to venture a little out of his circle of familiarity.
With each of these ‘sports-themed’ comedies, the number of home-runs has dwindled to such a sorry state it is difficult to remember the films at all.