Semi-Pro (2008) proved that Will Ferrell is no longer bulletproof at the box office. The film was not well-received by the critics (nothing new for Ferrell) but failed to connect with his fans like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Talladega Nights: The Ballad or Ricky Bobby (2006) did. On paper, Semi-Pro must’ve seemed like a sure-fire hit: mix the dumb guy humor from Anchorman with the underdog sports team of misfits from Slap Shot (1977) and sprinkle all sorts of popular culture references from the 1970s. So what went wrong?
Jackie Moon (Ferrell) is the ever-confident, terminally clueless owner, head coach, and star player (if you can call him that) of the Flint Tropics, an ABA basketball team that might be dissolved when the league merges with the NBA. Only the four best teams will make the cut, which is not good news for Jackie’s team. They are awful, averaging an attendance record of 91 people a game. The lone exception on the team is Clarence “Downtown” Malone (Andre Benjamin) who actually has a shot at making it to the NBA. The Tropics are so bad that one of the local commentators reads the Classifieds section of the newspaper during one game.
In order to improve the team’s chances, Jackie trades their washing machine for Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), a physical player not above punching out his opponents. The Tropics certainly have their work cut out for them. Not only do they have to start winning on a regular basis but they also have to average 2,000 people every home game. So, Jackie thinks up all kinds of hair-brained schemes to fill seats, including jumping the team’s cheerleaders on roller-skates and wrestling a grizzly bear.
For the first half of Semi-Pro, the comedic beats, or rhythm, is just not there. At the very least, it is inconsistent. Many jokes fall flat and are just not funny. The two color commentators Lou Redwood (Will Arnett) and Dick Pepperfield (Andrew Daly) steal every scene that they are in with their raunchy repartee (much like Jason Bateman and Gary Cole did in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story). Then, a funny thing happens in the second half. The film actually gets better. There are a few serious moments, mostly dealing with Monix and his ex-girlfriend (Maura Tierney), and once the Tropics get their act together, the film picks up momentum.
Will Ferrell plays the same type of character we’ve seen in countless films – the clueless confident guy with a touch of arrogance. To be fair, he’s got it down to a science now, but it is getting a tad predictable. One gets the feeling that Ferrell is trying to recapture the magic of Anchorman, complete with the 1970s setting. Unfortunately, Semi-Pro is nowhere near as funny despite an excellent premise. Aside from Will Arnett as his usual snarky self, Woody Harrelson is quite good as a washed-up former NBA player looking for redemption and hoping to rekindle his relationship with an ex-flame.
Semi-Pro isn’t a total train-wreck by any stretch and it does have its genuine moments of hilarity but doesn’t quite deliver as well and as often as it should. If you can make it through the first half of the film, where the filmmakers struggle to find the right mix of humor and drama, you’ll be rewarded for a much more satisfying second half that pays off your patience for sticking it out.