Even if the basketball-related bear-wrestling scene in this new Will Ferrell comedy weren’t the only basketball-related bear-wrestling scene in movie history, which it almost certainly is, it would more than likely still be the dumbest such basketball-related bear-wrestling scene. That it’s not the dumbest scene in the picture may suggest all you need to know about “Semi-Pro.” Not even Ferrell, spinning his comic wheels here, can save this vapid flick. Not this time.
There are two sorts of people who might find the movie to be something more than a waste of overpriced popcorn. One would be basketball nuts. The story is set in Michigan in 1976, the last year of the American Basketball Association, a low-rent league that operated in the shadow of the more prestigious National Basketball Association. Here, the NBA is about to take over the ABA, and has decreed that only the four best ABA teams will be kept going; the rest will be dissolved. Jackie Moon (Ferrell), owner and manager of the (fictitious) Flint Tropics, is determined that his team will be among the survivors. To this end, he brings in an NBA castoff named Monix (Woody Harrelson), who proves to be no help at all. Worse yet, Jackie’s top player, Clarence (Andre “3000″ Benjamin, of Outkast) , is itching to split for the NBA himself.
Another possible audience for the movie would be people who find anything to do with the 1970s hilarious by definition. For them, chuckles may abound, because the picture is overstuffed with period referents — the usual fat ties, batwing collars, dorky headbands and powder-blue leisurewear. But we’ve seen all of this before, and we’ve seen it in a somewhat better Will Ferrell movie — the 2004 “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” However, Ron Burgundy was a comic exaggeration of a recognizable cultural type: a slick, self-satisfied, small-market newscaster. Jackie Moon has no such real-world root — he’s just an arbitrary construct on which to hang gags. And the gags are strained. What reason could there be for making Jackie a failed pop singer (his one hit was a dance inanity called “Love Me Sexy”) other than the opportunity it allows the filmmakers to yank a laugh by showing us that he’s installed a giant disco ball over the team’s home court? And what reason could there be at all for having Jackie decide that a clever psych-out against an opposing team would be to have his own players enter the fray wearing eye shadow?
The cast is surprisingly game for all of this, especially Jackie Earle Haley, who puts in a few lively appearances as a brain-fried stoner fan. But the picture’s tone is hopelessly muddled. We’re apparently meant to be moved by the waning of the ABA — yet another shard of eccentric Americana tinkling off into history. But the half-hearted attempt at pathos sits awkwardly alongside Ferrell’s trademark nitwit shtick (there’s a puking sequence that goes on about two weeks longer than it should). And as social satire, the picture feels tired. People have been laughing at the ’70s since…well, since the ’70s. Comedically speaking, Ferrell has sucked that decade dry. Maybe it’s time to move on. I hear the ’90s are still free.
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