Will Ferrell doesn’t bring much to “Semi-Pro” that he hasn’t brought to his other starring vehicles. His character, Jackie Moon — the owner/coach/starting forward of the 1976 Flint (Michigan) Tropics basketball team — is a cocky, self-important man-child who isn’t nearly as talented as he thinks he is. In other words, he’s just like Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby and all the others.
But count me among the people who don’t mind the repetition. Ferrell is funny, and while there might not be much variance in the basic descriptions of his characters, he always demonstrates plenty of comedic inventiveness in the specifics.
In this case, the R rating — a first for a Ferrell-headlined comedy* — gives him the freedom to indulge in the kind of creative swearing that we all enjoyed so much in “Superbad” and “Knocked Up” (though not nearly as much of it). Given Ferrell’s wide-eyed-little-boy persona, it’s especially funny, for example, to hear him utter the things he says to an obstinate referee. (The printable part is “I’ll murder your family.”)
Then again, it’s classic Ferrell — absurd, silly, and almost innocent — when we learn that the worst thing you could possibly call another person in 1976 was “jive turkey.”
Yes, with Ferrell’s fascination with the 1970s, “Semi-Pro” is like “Anchorman” all over again. The script was written by Scot Armstrong (“Old School,” “Starsky & Hutch”), but clearly Ferrell and his co-stars, most of them natural-born improvisers, had plenty to add. If nothing else, they take to the surreal comic situations called for in the script (wrestling with a bear; Jackie’s inability to vomit) like pros.
The story has Jackie struggling to get his unpopular, untalented team up to at least fourth place by the end of the season so it can be one of the minor-league teams folded in to the NBA. This means filling the stands with fans, which a natural promoter like Jackie should have no problem with, as well as improving the team’s on-court performance, which Jackie is loath to admit he has no prowess for whatsoever.
Just in time, he acquires a one-time pro named Monix (Woody Harrelson), a good player and a hothead who was glad to come to Flint because he has an old girlfriend here. Lynn (Maura Tierney) isn’t interested in rekindling the romance; on the other hand, her new boyfriend (Rob Corddry — at least I think it’s her boyfriend; could be a brother) has a total man-crush on Monix, his favorite player.
The director is Kent Alterman, a studio honcho taking his first stab at directing, and he’s got his work cut out for him. The huge cast of characters makes the film unwieldy at times; editing it down to a breezy 90 minutes must have been difficult. The team’s color commentators, straitlaced Dick Pepperfield (Andrew Daly) and heavy-drinking Lou Redwood (Will Arnett), could have done 90 minutes of material by themselves. Andy Richter’s role as a Tropics staffer with undefined duties probably once had more meat to it, too.
In fact, the film struggles whenever it must deal with the mechanics of the plot. Monix and Lynn’s subplot feels out of place, particularly since Monix is a secondary character. (If anyone gets a love interest, it ought to be Jackie, who sometimes seems like he’s being passed off as the comic relief rather than the star.) The efforts of Tropics stand-out Clarence Black (André Benjamin) to get into the NBA likewise register high on my “I don’t care” meter.
The film is not up to par with some of Ferrell’s previous efforts, and I think his recent comments about laying off the sports comedies for a while are sensible. There are many very funny moments and scenes here, though. It’s an agreeable flick — not great, perhaps, but suitably mischievous and goofy.
*Though he was the most memorable person in “Old School,” he was not the headliner. Luke Wilson was.
B- (1 hr., 25 min.; )