One shot too many.
After coming up aces in two previous sports parodies, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006) and "Blades of Glory" (2007), Will Ferrell gave it one more try in "Semi-Pro" (2008). The third time was not the charm. Each succeeding film made less than its predecessor, with "Semi-Pro" barely making a quarter of what "Talladega Nights" earned. I believe I read somewhere that Ferrell has said he's forgoing any more such pictures for a while. Good thing, too. This one is pretty lame.
The idea was to make a comedy about the old American Basketball Association, the real-life league that played from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s before being absorbed into the more-prominent National Basketball Association. Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, a former one-hit-wonder recording artist who is now the owner, player, and coach of a fictional ABA team, the Flint (Michigan) Tropics. In their effort to survive, ABA teams would sometimes resort to activities beyond basketball, and for its humor the movie capitalizes on these often elaborate gimmicks and halftime shows. I rather suspect, however, that even though the ABA faded out of existence, it succeeded better than this movie, which dies a deserved demise before it's half started.
The problem from the outset is one that plagues too many movies these days, especially comedies: It's got a thin premise and no real story or characters. "Semi-Pro" gives one the feeling that the filmmakers made it up as they went along, starting with a ten-minute "Saturday Night Live" skit that everybody tried stretching to over an hour and a half by ad libbing and improvising. The two-disc set reviewed here includes both the original, R-rated theatrical version at about ninety-two minutes and a new, unrated "Let's Get Sweaty" version that's a few minutes longer, the major difference being the addition of more dirty words. Is this any way to make a movie?
Anyway, the Tropics are on the verge of bankruptcy. They've tried everything to attract an audience--from a "Free Gerbil Night" to a "Dime Beer Night"--and nothing has worked. Attendance is at an all-time low. It never occurs to Jackie that maybe they have no fans because they never win a game. Instead of coaching his team to win, Jackie comes up with ever stupider half-time shows, like his wrestling a bear or skate-jumping over twenty girls. When a goofball hippie (Jackie Earle Haley) wins ten grand in one of Jackie's cockamamie stunts--an impossible free-throw contest--ten grand Jackie doesn't have, it's the last straw. Jackie's got to do something.
Then comes the NBA possibly to his rescue. They have agreed to absorb the four best ABA teams into their league if the rest of the ABA will just go away. So all Jackie has to do is actually win a few games, move up into the top four, and join the NBA. Oh, and attract a few fans as well. The NBA insists that the top four teams it takes on also be popular teams. So Jackie's got two problems because the Tropics are the worst of the worst all the way around. That's the setup, and the rest of the film is just a matter of our hanging around waiting for Jackie to come up with something new.
In its favor, "Semi-Pro" does a nice job recreating the look and feel of the 1970s, the lifestyles, the clothing, and the hairdos. Be aware, however, that movies like "Austin Powers" already exploited these possibilities (albeit for a decade earlier, but close enough), and "Semi-Pro" doesn't do much more with them. Merely looking at Will Ferrell's curly-long 'do and equally hairy armpits is not enough.
OK, there is one cute bit involving eyeliner, but, unfortunately, it's followed by a slapstick brawl that quickly lowers the level.
I suppose the filmmakers figured that Ferrell and a few others could carry the show, but they figured wrong, mainly because the supporting players are caricature we've seen too many times before. Woody Harrelson plays a washed-up NBA cast-off, Ed Monix, who gets virtually nothing amusing to do. His character is so serious, he's like a sour grape in the proceedings and only adds a needless note of solemnity to the show. What's more, Monix is still pining after an old flame (Maura Tierney), and neither Harrelson's nor Tierney's character has anything even remotely to do with the main story line. They're totally extraneous, and the filmmakers could have (maybe should have) cut them entirely without any effect on the story line.
Then there are the practically anonymous fellow players on the Tropics team played by Andre Benjamin, DeRay Davis, and others who go by unnoticed. Andy Richter plays the team manager, Bobby Dee, to unmemorable effect. And Andrew Daly and Will Arnett play a pair of witless announcers of a type we've seen all too often in sports parodies. Well, at least they have a couple of semi-amusing exchanges, which is more than one can say for Ferrell, who seems at his wit's end to find any humor in any of his scenes.
The fact is, "Semi-Pro" generates no laughs, and the participants in it must have realized that. The whole cast seems more desperate than they do funny or entertaining as the movie drones on through one more dull gag and one more profanity after another in its attempt to find a laugh. Most of the time it's in the dark and simply groping.
The New Line video engineers retain the movie's 2.35:1 aspect ratio an anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks pretty good for standard definition, although the original print was probably pretty gaudy to begin with, so don't expect miracles. Certainly, the colors are bright and intense enough, as befitting the circus atmosphere the filmmakers were trying to create, but the hues are also often slightly oversaturated, and definition can sometimes be a tad fuzzy, losing inner detail. In its favor, the transfer displays strong black levels and very few signs of excess grain, noise, or artifacts. I don't guess the movie is supposed to look too realistic.
The disc offers up audio in either Dolby Digital 5.1 EX or 2.0. In DD 5.1 we hear the crowd chatter, the environmental sounds, and the ambient musical bloom that we've come to expect from surround sound, as well as an occasionally deep bass response and an all-around strong impact from the main speakers. Because the midrange is fairly natural and well balanced, dialogue comes through clearly, and there is little or no background noise to disturb things. It's a perfectly competent, modern soundtrack.
Disc one of this Two-Disc standard-definition DVD edition contains the original R-rated theatrical version of the movie and the special "Let's Get Sweaty" unrated version. About the only differences I could tell were that the slightly longer unrated version adds a few more naughty words and a couple of topless scenes. There are twenty-four scene selections involved but no chapter insert; English is the only spoken language available; and there are English and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains the bulk of the extra materials. These begin with about fifteen minutes of deleted, alternate, and improv scenes. Following that is a series of "Behind the Scenes" featurettes: (1) "A Short History of the ABA," seven minutes; "Re-creating the American Basketball Association," twelve minutes; "Love Me Sexy: The Story Behind the One-Hit Wonder," five minutes; "Bill Walton Visits the Set," two minutes; "Four Days in Flint," five minutes; and "The Man Behind Semi-Pro," twenty-four minutes, all of the titles pretty much self-explanatory. Next, there is a music video, "Love Me Sexy," with Ferrell; "Flint Tropics Hot Talk" with Dick Pepperfield interviewing Jackie Moon in a pair of one-minute segments; and several theatrical trailers (some of which New Line also include at start-up). As an added bonus, the set includes a digital copy of the film on disc two that you can copy to your PC.
It's a good thing Will Ferrell is laying off the sports satires for a while. "Semi-Pro" pretty much mines the bottom of the barrel for laughs, going with improvisation and cheap shots for its attempts at humor. If you're a dedicated Will Ferrell fan, you might find pleasure in a few brief moments of the film. Otherwise, it may be a chore.