Will Ferrell has reached a remarkable plateau. At the apex of his career, his name has turned otherwise mundane comedies into event films (“Talladega Nights”). We all know the celebrated “Saturday Night Live” alum could hilariously ad-lib his way in and out of any situation, but the clueless absurdist routine that worked so well for a time simply couldn’t keep working for the course of a full-length film forever. At this point, Ferrell’s trademark shtick has run its course.
In “Semi-Pro,” his latest over-hyped effort, Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, player/coach/owner of the Flint (Michigan) Tropics of the American Basketball Association. The year is 1976, and as the ABA considers a merger with the National Basketball Association, Moon is informed that the Tropics will have to fold at season’s end. Outraged, Moon bursts into the classic Ferrell tantrum (see “Talladega Nights,” “Blades of Glory” or basically any other Ferrell film), but manages to convince the commissioner to give the Tropics a chance to prove themselves over the course of the season.
The Tropics are, predictably, a hopeless disaster. Moon spends his time choreographing halftime shows and promoting ridiculous giveaways while his team has no plays to run or even a vague game plan. Knowing he has to make improvements if the Tropics are to survive, Moon trades the team’s washing machine for Monix (Woody Harrelson, “No Country for Old Men”), a washed-up ex-NBA player who at least understands the game. As Monix brings the hapless Tropics together to make a push for glory, “Semi-Pro” makes the usual stops for an underdog sports comedy and finishes up adequately. But that’s not good enough.
For all the promotional hoopla surrounding its release (including the very prominent Old Spice ad campaign), “Semi-Pro” is, quite simply, a bust. Featuring only a shoddy plot and Ferrell’s well-known exuberant deadpan, the film has nothing in the way of coherence, a story or even a theme that would sustain anything beyond a two-minute “SNL” sketch. Fans of “Arrested Development,” “The Daily Show,” “SNL” or “The Office” may see some of their favorite TV comedians in this film (Will Arnett, Andy Richter, Rob Corddry, Jason Sudeikis, Ed Helms, Kristen Wiig, etc.), but it’s painfully obvious how vapid all of their roles are.
It’s impressive that Ferrell has a fan base so strong that he can turn a film as pedestrian and dull as “Semi-Pro” into the most talked-about film of the year so far. However, his fans have surely noticed by now that these movies are getting less and less funny – “Semi-Pro” certainly makes it painfully obvious. By sticking to this popular but limiting genre and persona, Ferrell is quickly burning through his reputation as an eccentric genius whose best work is still ahead of him.
Adam Sandler, another comedian who could have done more than gag comedy but never did, was a casualty of a similar dilemma a few years back. Perhaps Ferrell can learn from his mistakes and right the ship while there is still time. We have seen Ferrell do so much better in slightly deeper comedic roles (see “Stranger Than Fiction,” “The Producers” or “Elf”), and it’s sad to see him churn out another shallow slapstick comedy.
It would be a shame if the pathetic antics of Jackie Moon or Ricky Bobby were the highlights of Ferrell’s career.
At Quality 16 and Showcase