A Will Ferrell movie is about as close to a known quantity as you can get in the film industry these days. The lead character is almost always a well-meaning oaf afflicted by neurosis and some affliction that causes him to scream a lot. Then throw in some cheap laughs elicited by Ferrell’s wearing of ill-fitting clothing over his less-than-ideal physique – or, even better, the removal of said clothes entirely (the man embraces onscreen semi-nudity like he was getting points for every square inch of hairy, pale skin exposed). There also has to be some sort of plot, and going by Ferrell’s recent films you can just slot in any sport you like. Finally, flesh out the supporting cast with familiar faces (David Koechner, Will Arnett, Andy Richter), and voila.
In that sense, “Semi-Pro” is as typical a Ferrell movie as you’re likely to find. This time around, the neurotic dimwit who raises his voice improperly is one Jackie Moon, the owner/coach/power forward of the Tropics, and ABA franchise in the bustling metropolis of Flint, Michigan. Moon is a former one-hit wonder (1970’s “Love Me Sexy”) who happens to be a much better events promoter than he is a teacher of basketball’s fundamentals. Unfazed by dwindling attendance and the team’s dismal record, Moon is hoping that an impending merger with the National Basketball Association will turn the team’s fortunes around. Unfortunately for him, only four teams will actually merge with the NBA; the rest will cease to exist. Moon gets the league to agree to take the four teams with the best record, and sets about to secure the Tropics that coveted 4th place playoff spot. To this end, he hires former NBA player Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) to bring some muscle to the team, and initiates a series of goofy promotional events to put butts in the seats.
If all this sounds similar to another sports underdog movie about a certain endangered hockey franchise, rest assured that “Slap Shot’s” legacy is safe. Ferrell is no Paul Newman, and Harrelson – believably grizzled as he is – is no Hanson brother. The film coasts along, meandering between mildly amusing non sequitur sequences you’ve already seen in his other movies (the “punch to the jejunum” gag recalls “Anchorman’s” ‘punch him in the uvula,’ and so on) and the requisite scenes where Moon and Monix finally achieve some measure of self-awareness. Of course, “Semi-Pro” was helmed by Kent Alterman, producer of such comedy classics as “Balls of Fury” and “Mr. Woodcock,” and written by Scot “School for Scoundrels” Armstrong, so such introspection is understandably shallow…even by mainstream Hollywood standards.
As Ferrell’s films go, “Semi-Pro” is, honestly, pretty damn boring. The once and future “Frank the Tank” is content to leave most of the weirdness to his supporting cast; particularly the Tropics’ announcing team of Arnett and Andrew Daly, and Corddry as a fan whose obsession with Monix enters some distinctly uncomfortable territory. Ferrell himself relies mostly on period humor (did you know white guys had afros in the ‘70s?) and the result is more of the same brand of dumb that fuels most of the actor’s output these days. It’s a formula that’s rapidly losing its appeal (and many would argue it passed that milestone a while back), leaving us to wonder if Ferrell will ever revisit more nuanced roles like “Stranger Than Fiction’s” Harold Crick, or if this is all she wrote.