Will Ferrell Takes Up Old School Basketball
By Cole Smithey
Will Ferrell loiters in the comfort of his signature punch-drunk delivery of outrageous lines and sight gags in a '70s era parody that extends the funk vibe of Judd Apatow's summer comedy "Superbad." In Flint, Michigan, Jackie Moon (Ferrell) is an R&B singer, basketball team owner, team player, and promoter for the Flint Tropics— a team playing under the rules of the American Basketball Association. The movie opens to the strains of Ferrell crooning "We're naked and we're humping sexy" from a Jackie Moon song called "Love Me Sexy," written with lyrics stolen from Jackie's deceased mother. The song's humorous effect expands as Jackie sings it to a sparse coliseum crowd with an infectious glee. Intent on winning a place among teams merging into the NBA, the afro-haired Jackie hires Monix (Woody Harrelson), a former benchwarmer for the champion Boston Celtics, to lead the Tropics to victory in their last season. In spite of its fractured sketch comedy design, "Semi-Pro" provides a requisite amount of Saturday Night Live-styled humor to keep audiences satisfied.
Screenwriter Scot Armstrong ("Old School") keeps the comedy visual and the language profane. Will Ferrell has, by osmosis with screenwriters, branded his dry underplayed slapstick spaz attacks. The aging frat boy character that he created in Armstrong's "Old School" has gone from a bedeviled racecar driver ("Talladega Nights") to a sexually challenged championship ice skater ("Blades of Glory"), to a do-it-all basketball player in the economically challenged city of Flint, circa 1976.
There's a blue-collar theme that runs under the '70s era setting. Monix takes the job with Jackie Moon's team in exchange for a washing machine, and to be near his ex-girlfriend Lynn (Maura Tierney). The romantic subplot serves as a perfunctory placeholder that never jibes with the zany comedy situations. Woody Harrelson is distinctly unfunny opposite Will Ferrell because he never catches up to the comic timing around him. For her part, Maura Tierney looks great never has time to establish her character's straight-man charm. Harrelson's casting is a big flaw that begs questions about which other cast members might have handled the role better.
Will Ferrell has become the Bill Murray of his day. He's a staple Indiewood actor for a particular type of self-effacing comedy that's dependable for its lack of cynicism. You know in advance his movies will feel slender, but you'll get your money's worth of laughs. "Semi-Pro" isn't an earnest comedy like "Knocked Up" Still, it mocks the modern age of political correctness with a passion that comes through especially in irreverent supporting performances from Andre Benjamin, Jackie Earle Haley, Will Arnett, and Andrew Daly—who plays a suggestible television sportscaster. Nostalgia for the bad old days of the '70s in America can only mean one thing; the 21st century still hasn't found its footing.
Rated R. 90 mins. (B-) (Three Stars—out of five/no halves)
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