With "Semi-Pro" it's now clear that there are two very distinct kinds of Will Ferrell comedies.
The first could broadly be described as those that really work, the new classics of comedy. The second are the mediocre, disposable, clichéd films that can be seen, hopefully mildly enjoyed, and forgotten. There is a distinct difference between whether one of Ferrell's movies goes into either category - this will be explored shortly. Unfortunately, Ferrell's newest effort falls into the latter. Nevertheless, it is certainly a step up from 2007's Ferrell comedy "Blades of Glory" and is still somewhat entertaining.
"Semi-Pro" returns Ferrell to the 1970s, a time period in which he found previous success in 2004's "Anchorman." This time, instead of being Ron Burgundy, an arrogant newsman, he's Jackie Moon, an arrogant, former disco crooner turned owner-coach-player of the American Basketball Association's Tropics of Flint, Michigan. With the money and fame from his number one song "Love Me Sexy" behind him, Jackie now seeks glory in the basketball world, acting as the team's forward, chief promoter (with crazy acts like wrestling a bear,) opening announcer, businessman, strategist, and half-time dance act choreographer. Wouldn't it be cool if we saw more of this owner-coach-player-halftime bear wrestler thing in real life? Why doesn't Shaq or some other wildly successful NBA star buy his own team and lead it? Why doesn't Kobe Bryant wrestle a bear? There should be more bear wrestling in professional basketball.
Jackie's opportunity to really hit the big time comes with news of the ABA's merge with the NBA. Initially thrilled beyond comprehension, Jackie is then thrown back down to earth when he's informed that the Tropics will not be one of the four teams being incorporated into the NBA. They'll cease to exist and Jackie will be right back where he started, a Disco singer without his next song. Desperate, Jackie manages to talk the commissioner of the ABA into a deal: the top four teams in the league should get to merge. So all Jackie has to do is get his losing team up to fourth place. It's a typical, yet still effective, sports movie plot.
The key for the Tropics is a new team member, former NBA player Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson,) drawn to Flint more by the presence of ex-girlfriend Lynn (Maura Tierney) than Jackie's cause. Monix will step in to teach the Tropics how to play the game with a little strategy and discipline - hardly the fortes of the bear-wrestling, jumping-cheerleaders-on-rollers-skates Jackie Moon.
There are several elements of "Semi-Pro" that work. The premise is pretty good. Unlike "Blades of Glory," which I dreaded from the moment I heard about it, I was eager to see "Semi-Pro" and it at least held up as moderately entertaining and intriguing. A comedy about the last days of the ABA, featuring a flamboyant owner-coach-player, is a good idea for a movie. Performances are all decent. Andre Benjamin as star of the team Clarence "Coffee Black" again shows his move from musician to actor to be a good choice. Let's hope he'll someday give a performance as good as his song "Hey Ya!" Harrelson is great too, as we've come to expect from him.
Despite these notable strengths the film is pretty mediocre. It's moderately funny, never quite delivering the intense belly laughs we'd like. It's predictable, formulaic, and clichéd, as we know going in. The whole subplot with Monix and his ex-girlfriend is entirely unnecessary. The characters, with the exception of Ferrell's Jackie Moon, are forgettable, even if they're well played.
And what about good old Will? I mean he's the only reason anyone's going to go see "Semi-Pro," right? And ultimately it's all about Will Ferrell. All this other stuff - supporting characters, plot, premise - it's just to allow for another Will Ferrell performance. And Ferrell's certainly good. He's the strongest, most talented force working in comedy today in front of the camera. (Behind the scenes clearly goes to comedy producer/directing giant Judd Apatow who especially dominated last year with "Knocked Up," "Superbad," and "Walk Hard.")
"Semi-Pro" is not his best work, though. And it gets back to the two kinds of Will Ferrell comedies. Beginning in the past five years or so, when Ferrell really broke out as a star instead of just a supporting player, his two biggest successes have clearly been "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights." They're without a doubt his funniest, most original creations. And the difference between them and "Blades of Glory," "Kicking and Screaming," "Elf," and now "Semi-Pro" is that they've been partially his creations. Farrell co-wrote the screenplays for both "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights."
So here's the theory. When Ferrell gets together with his usual gang and decides to make a movie, when he really participates extensively in the creation of the film, chances are you're going to get a decent picture. When the studios chuck him a script that they think has his name on it, then you're on much shakier ground. Sure, Ferrell will be fine, deliver a solid performance, and emerge unscathed. The rest of the movie will probably be pretty so-so, though.
Luckily for all of us, though, Ferrell's next movie is co-written by him, and reunites him with "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights" director Adam McKay, producer Apatow, and "Talladega Nights" co-star John C Reilly with whom he has incredible chemistry. It's called "Stepbrothers" and is due out in July.
One last note on "Semi-Pro" - more of a warning, actually. Going into the theatre I was certain I was stepping into a PG-13 picture. Then they dropped their first F-bomb and I thought "wow, they used that up real quick for nothing." (Typically PG-13 films nowadays are allowed one F-word which most know to use carefully to maximize its comedic effect.) Then another came. Then another. Then other expletives started showing up, some used moderately well. (Ferrell is a gifted artist in the medium of profanity.) Eventually I realized that it had to be rated R. For the entire movie this puzzled and fascinated - and it still does. These Will Ferrell sports comedies are always rated PG-13. Why on earth did the filmmakers - and the studio - decide to make this an R-rated movie? It makes no sense whatsoever. I mean they don't really use the R-rating at all. It's rated R for a bunch of unnecessary swearing - most of it not very funny - and an unnecessary sex scene that might even pass for a PG-13. In this regard the film is an anomaly. When it comes to modern comedies there's usually a very clear distinction between the PG-13 and the R-rated comedy. When a filmmaker decides to make an R-rated comedy they tend to go all out. You get gross-out humor and gratuitous nudity galore. "Semi-Pro" doesn't do that. It's basically a PG-13 Will Ferrell comedy that decided for some strange reason that it wanted to have all this excessive swearing. I have no idea why some studio executive never stepped in and said "Hey, this isn't an R-rated comedy. Cut the curse words and let's get our PG-13 so teenagers can see it and we can make tens of millions more." Perhaps the greatest criticism I can give of "Semi-Pro" is that this strange mystery is more fascinating, to me at least, than the movie itself.