Over the last decade or so, Will Ferrell has dug for himself a very familiar Hollywood niche. In his films, he invariably plays some sort of enthusiastic, well-meaning doofus toiling away in the lower echelons of some random career ladder. Ferrell surrounds himself with a collection of comic compatriots, all of whom add their own improvisational spin to the loose, sketch-comedy shenanigans. Racking up far more in the hit than the miss column, Ferrell’s formula has afforded the former “Saturday Night Live” star a comfortable movie career.
Semi-Pro doesn’t tinker with the winning gameplan at all. Sticking with the sporting milieu of the last few years (Kicking & Screaming, Tallageda Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Blades of Glory), Semi-Pro finds Ferrell cast as yet another larger-than-life loser, the owner/coach/player of a B-league basketball team in the funky, funky ’70s. The Flint Tropics are the worst team in the league, but chief cook and bottle washer Jackie Moon (Ferrell) has got a secret up his sleeve. The American Basketball Association is about to go out of business, folding itself into the powerhouse NBA. (The concept is actually historically sound, as the NBA did absorb the ABA in 1976.) Moon figures he’s on easy street, at least until he’s informed by the league’s commissioner that the NBA will only be taking the top four teams.
Unwilling to go down without a fight, our delusional dreamer figures all he’s got to do is pack the arena with fans and win every game. To these ends, he concocts a stream of outrageous publicity stunts (wrestling a bear, for example) and trades his team’s washing machine for a legendary former player (Woody Harrelson, again proving white men can jump).
As usual, it looks like everyone is enjoying themselves on screen. Ferrell has rounded out his roster with a collection of comic ringers (Will Arnett, Andy Richter, David Koechner, Rob Corddry, Tim Meadows, Ed Helms)--all of whom probably had a lot of fun hanging out on set, but none of whom seem to be working particularly hard here. The chuckles are consistent throughout Semi-Pro, but big belly laughs are rare. Instead, the film falls back on the well-worn “ragtag, underdog sports team bucking the odds and rooting for the dignity of a come-from behind victory” plotline.
At least it’s a plotline that works. With the help of Harrelson’s world-weary knowledge and some hustle from the team's star player (André Benjamin, trading musical stardom in OutKast for more movie roles), the Tropics start climbing the ranks of the ABA. It’s nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before. It might have made for a funnier film if Ferrell and company had been a bit more irreverent and poked more fun at the shopworn Bad News Bears/Rocky/Hoosiers/Miracle/Remember the Titans genre. But they don’t, treating the clichés as sacrosanct. (It’s hard to tell if the slate-faced Harrelson even knew he was in a comedy.) Most of the laughs come from Ferrell’s ridiculous attempts to promote the team, while the story itself is played for straight, stand-up-and-cheer sentiment.
It all works in a patchwork way, and Ferrell fans will walk away more-or-less satisfied. It’s a shame, though, to say that Semi-Pro is only semi-funny. Maybe the success of his career has made Ferrell fat, lazy and comfortable. Because—to steal a meaningless turn-of-phrase from countless coaches throughout history—this movie just doesn't get out there and give 110 percent.