Friday, February 29, 2008

"Semi-Pro" -- * *

While watching "Semi-Pro," you keep waiting for when it's finally going to pick up and become funny, and then at a certain point, you realize it's just not going to happen. Scene after scene keeps building and building towards a punchline of a joke that never comes, and it just moves onto the next scene. I don't know about you, but I get a little depressed when a 90-minute comedy goes by without me laughing a single time. Which isn't to say "Semi-Pro" is awful; it's not. It's just insanely dull and uninspired, which is a pretty substantial problem when your movie is barely a movie to begin with. More than a coherent film, it's a series of tired Will Ferrell sketches that are frequently interrupted by an earnest sports drama starring Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin. With the combination of underdog story and stupid, over-the-top laughs, it's clear "Dodgeball" is what's being emulated here (it's even the umpteenth film to rip off that one's 'referees with oddball non-sequitirs' concept), and this doesn't even come close.

Ferrell is a mysterious fig. He stands apart from the comedy pack by clearly being an intelligent, hilarious guy with an absurd sense of humor, but without the proper creative team, he flounders. There has long been ongoing the conversation about people getting sick of him and specifically his sports comedies. Well, I'm not quite sure I'm getting sick of him-- I love him in too many movies to make that statement-- but I'm certainly starting to get irritated with how blatantly he relies on his trademark tactics when the material sucks. Uh, no comedic payoff here? Let me take off my shirt and run around! Nothing funny to say in this scene? Let me yell it as loud as I can! Ferrell is phenomenal in supporting roles in "Dick," "Drowning Mona," "The Ladies Man," "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and "Zoolander," and his leading parts in "Elf," "Talladega Nights," "Anchorman" and "Stranger than Fiction" were not just funny, but brilliant bits of acting in and of themselves. But particularly with "Blades of Glory" and "Semi-Pro," he's very much sticking to a not-very-funny formula that's worked for him before, and I'd be lying if I said it doesn't reek of desperation.

As for it being in the latest line of his sports movies (after "Talladega Nights," "Blades of Glory" and "Kicking and Screaming"), I've got to say it's the worst and least funny of the four. "Kicking" isn't anything special, but it works on the level of a kids movie as it's supposed to, and I laughed more than a few times. "Blades" is not close to a good movie, and I think most of it falls flat, but at least I laughed at a few moments, particularly at Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. So while this movie doesn't outwardly suck as that one did at times, it also didn't ever make me laugh. I'd rather a movie actually try, and hit once in a while, than barely try at all and just leave me bored. A lot of this rests upon the creative team, always the key with Ferrell movies, I've come to learn. I tend to love Ferrell when teamed with his comedic partner, co-writer and director Adam McKay, as he was for "Talladega Nights" and "Anchorman" (and the upcoming "Step Brothers"). Here, helmer Kent Alterman is directing for the first time, and it shows. I've heard rumors that Ferrell has acquired the rights to the excellent comedy doc "The King of Kong" to be remade as a feature-film, but I really hope he doesn't go through with it. Someone needs to tell him his man-child sports shtick has run its course.

Taking place in Flint, Michigan in 1976, "Semi-Pro" is inspired by the real-life events of when the ABA (American Basketball Association) was in the shitter and was about to partake in a merger with the NBA. All the specifics on display are fabricated, but that little bit was true. Here, the film focuses on the Flint Tropics, and their coach, owner, star player and writer of the hit song "Love Me Sexy," Jackie Moon (Ferrell). Since the ABA has decided to only allow the top four teams into the NBA, Moon decides to take initiative and make the team step up their game on every level. Oh, lest I forget to mention, Moon has an afro and wears short shorts, as were the league requirements in those days. The bulk of the movie are Moon's wacky, zany ideas for gimmicks to boost attendance. Part of Moon's plan for improving the team's game was to bring on former NBA player Monix (Woody Harrelson). At least a third of the movie concerns Monix's reasons for joining/helping the Tropics, his old girlfriend/wife (Maura Tierney) who's still in town, and saving face after winning an NBA championship ring purely by spending a season on the bench. Monix also constantly butts heads with the team's best player Clarence, or "Coffee Black" (Andrew Benjamin) who keeps being told that he'll never amount to anything if he doesn't try harder.

The biggest element of "Semi-Pro" that just feels "off" is its jarringly incongruous tones. Ferrell's material is so stupid and irrelevant that whenever we abruptly shift back to Harrelson and Benjamin's 100% dramatic subplots, one could be excused for getting whiplash. The back-and-forth results in the movie never establishing a silly or absurd tone, making the Ferrell material seem as if it's taking place in an entirely different world than the rest of the movie. I'm not completely sure that the movie was even written as a comedy; no major characters besides Jackie are even supposed to be funny. I could be wrong about this, but based on the finished product, I would guess that Ferrell just liked the story/script and asked the makers to write a wacky character for him and adjust the script so it would revolve around that character. As for the dramatic material itself, I found it remarkably tedious and dull; I can't even imagine how Ferrell's drooling, guffawing diehards will respond to it.

But this would be less if a problem if the comedic content was significantly funnier. I know that scattershot comedies have an easier time getting away with being incoherent, but there are barely even segues here between set-pieces, and rarely pay-offs to said set-pieces. The movie relies entirely on his man-child persona and doesn't have any good jokes or lines to fill in the blanks. They genuinely feel like half-written jokes or ideas that never got completely finished before the movie got rushed into production to beat the writers strike. The one joke that comes the closest to being funny (I was waiting with bated breath, literally, to start laughing) is an extended bit involving "Jive Turkey" being the worst insult someone could be called in the 1970s and a supposedly un-loaded gun being thrown around the room. Again, it's a funny idea, but it never pays off or reaches an appropriate climax. I mentally chucked at one of the basketball players being named "Munson" (I assume in an homage to Harrelson's character in "Kingpin") but I don't know if that even counts as a joke.

Some, like me, may be semi-excited for this movie purely on the basis of it being rated-R, having the mindset of "Man, Will Ferrell getting to cut loose and say whatever he wants? He's so funny in PG-13, imagine how funny he'll be with no restrictions!" Well, "Semi-Pro" may have the edge on many similar comedies with its R-rating, but that doesn't make it any funnier, and it barely takes advantage of it. Yes, if you think you'll be prone to fits of hysterics at Will Ferrell simply saying "fuck" and "cock," you may like this movie more than I. But me, I need the "fucks" and "cocks" to be said in the context of something funny, not merely awkwardly shoe-horned into dialogue to give an otherwise bland comedy an R-rated "flavor."

Ferrell, as an actor/comedian, usually has a boundless engergy and infectious enthusiasm even in sub-par vehicles, but here, you can tell he's on auto-pilot. I'm not done with Ferrell in movies like this, but I'm well on my way if he continues down the same path. It doesn't help that even in the confines of the sort of movie it is, Jackie isn't even written as a character. "Talladega Nights," "Anchorman," and even "Old School," as silly as they were, were able to give us a protagonist we were able to understand and actually like within the context of its reality. Frank the Tank was given an interesting backstory about his old party days and his conflicting feelings about feeling a responsibility to his wife and family. Ron Burgundy was used to being the cock-of-the-walk and living the way he was adjusted to, and had to evolve to become a different sort of man through his love for Veronica Corningstone and learning to accept/appreciate women's rising power in the workplace. Ricky Bobby's arrogance gave way to having to live outside of the spotlight, allowing his best friend an opportunity to succeed, fell in love with Amy Adams, rekindled his relationship with his dad, AND learned to accept gay people. Now, I'm not saying any of these movies had poignance per se, but these lead characters were actually characters. Jackie Moon, on the other hand, is never a real person, we learn NOTHING about him, he shows no sort of emotion, he just shrieks and runs. His defining character traits are that he fights a bear and makes his team wear zany costumes.

Making things more depressing, Ferrell has assembled an astounding supporting comedic cast. Will Arnett, Rob Corddry, David Koechner, Tim Meadows, Ed Helms, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Kristin Wiig show up at various moments and really none of them get anything funny to do, try as they might. They get most of their laughs at the audience recognizing/acknowledging them, and not at anything they do. Amazingly, hot off his Oscar nomination last year for "Little Children," Jackie Earle Haley shows up as a constantly stoned fan, and I'm not really sure what he was directed to do, but I think I can safely say, it doesn't have the desired intention. I thought he deserved to win the Oscar last year, and I was rooting for the guy in a small role in a silly comedy, but he's only included here as yet another barely thought out gag that doesn't pay off and just left me staring at the screen with a confused look on my face.

Whether you were highly anticipating it or not, "Semi-Pro" is unquestionably a disappointment. Me, I'm disappointed that Ferrell has such a tolerance for mediocrity and that two disparate movies joined forces to create a tonally schizophrenic work that doesn't function successfully on either front. Rabid enthusiasts of the actor who will laugh at anything, and I mean ANYTHING, he does, will find some stuff to do so at here, but I can't imagine even them thinking it's one of his funnier/better ones. Will Ferrell in an afro and short shots alone does not make a funny movie, no matter how many times you show it.


Blogger El Gigante said...

Wow Rob, you're a blogging machine. I've discovered you through the comments section of film experience and I will be making it a point to check back here frequently. Keep up the great work. Also thank you for finally confirming that there is no need to rush out to the theater to see this movie.

1:21 AM  
Blogger bruce said...

I walked out of this movie after 20 minutes after being dragged into it after seeing Be Kind Rewind. Horrrrrible.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. I wanted it to be a great flick, but it was not that funny. And a little more off-color than it needed to be. Did someone forget to tell Woody that this was a comedy? Will is great, but needed some help in this one. It could have used some Vince, Owen or Luke.
The soundtrack is strong!

10:23 AM  

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