Since ending his days on "Saturday Night Live," Will Ferrell has staked out a niche for himself playing essentially the same character in various professions and costumes. Whether anchoring the news, driving a racecar or playing basketball, the dimwitted, socially clueless Ferrell persona perseveres in spite of his own ineptitude. He is a likeable character, but he can only exist in a world that is as equally removed from any semblance of the real world as he is, and this is precisely where "Semi-Pro" falls apart. Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, the owner, coach, and star player of American Basketball Association team the Flint Tropics in 1976 Michigan. For Ferrell, Jackie Moon is simply another moniker for Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby. For director Kent Alterman, he is the second banana of a rather lightweight sports movie starring Woody Harrelson. This creative discrepancy results in a film that is bipolar in its intentions, at once trying to make us laugh at Jackie and care about the rest of the characters, but it's a losing battle on both sides.
The film gets off to a great start as Jackie belts out his sexually charged, Barry White-esque one-hit-wonder, "Love Me Sexy," a song so genuinely evocative of the era and hilarious in its ridiculous lyrics that it sets a high bar that the rest of the film never comes close to. In a board meeting with the heads of the NBA, Jackie learns that they will be merging with the ABA, but only four teams will be absorbed. The chosen teams will be whichever ones place in the top four spots at the end of the season, so Jackie makes it the Tropics' goal to make it to at least fourth place. One problem: they suck. In a bid to improve his team, he brings in former NBA champ Monix (Harrelson), who only accepts the downgrading trade in order to be near his ex-girlfriend Lynn (Maura Tierney) in Flint. At first put off by the team's utter lack of motivation, Monix is later approached by "Coffee" Brown (André Benjamin), the player with the most potential, to take over as the team's coach. Meanwhile, Jackie uses his innate showmanship to draw in the crowds, using whatever promotional tactics he can think of, from promising free corndogs for every spectator to taking a skating jump over eight ball girls.
Ferrell plays his character with the same broadness we have come to expect from him, doing a fair amount of screaming and mugging for the camera. Everyone else in the film is comparatively restrained, including fellow funnymen Andrew Daly, Will Arnett, Andy Richter, and David Koechner. Ferrell seems to be in another movie altogether, and what is particularly odd is that he is more of a relief character than a protagonist, stepping aside for Harrelson and André Benjamin, whose characters are given more (though not necessarily substantial) development. In fact, without Ferrell, "Semi-Pro" might be something more akin to sports comedies such as "The Bad News Bears" (1976) and "Slap Shot" (1977), following the basic conventions of the sports genre but with a more cynical edge. Instead, it substitutes cynicism with Ferrell's mania, simultaneously diluting Harrelson and Benjamin's drama and depriving Ferrell of the fast pace needed to support his energy.
Even casting Ferrell aside, the rest of the film has little going for it in the way of humor. A promising cast can only do so much with material that just isn't funny. Andrew Daly and Will Arnett provide some of the film's scant moments of genuine humor as a pair of sportscasters whose verbal exchanges have less to do with the games and much more to do with the scantily clad ball girls. One other noteworthy gag is also the film's dirtiest, involving Lynn's new boyfriend, Kyle (Rob Corddry), who is a huge fan of Monix. Coming home one night to find Lynn and Monix having sex, Kyle watches and proceeds to masturbate, feeling great pride rather than jealousy in his idol's pursuit of his girlfriend. While no doubt meant purely as a mindless joke, Kyle's subsequent arousal by Lynn and Monix's intimacy hints at a bizarre relationship between fan and celebrity that, had they been smarter, the filmmakers might have exploited more fully to bring a greater edge to the film. As it is, this is one small glimmer in a tepid comedy in desperate need of spark.
New Line Home Entertainment has brought "Semi-Pro" to DVD in a 2-disc special edition. Included are both the R-rated, theatrical version and an extended, unrated version on Disc 1. Approximately seven minutes longer, the unrated version features nothing that could not have been included in an R-rated film (some added or alternate scenes of sexual dialogue and gratuitous nudity). The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. Image quality is very good, with a sharp, crisp transfer that is virtually free of blemishes. Colors are vibrant and well-saturated. Contrast is excellent, with deep black levels and bright whites. Skin tones look natural throughout. The overall colorful appearance of the film is serviced well by New Line.
The audio is similarly excellent in a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack. Sound effects, music, and dialogue are separated and distributed effectively during the game scenes, ensuring that each is heard clearly. Voices are always clear, and the music blasts smoothly when appropriate. An English stereo track is also available, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
By now I have come to expect nothing short of greatness when it comes to New Line's supplemental material, even when the film is not worthy of it, and this set is no exception. Aside from some sneak peaks on Disc 1, the special features are all located on the second disc, beginning with about 15 minutes of deleted footage. Four deleted scenes are followed by outtakes of Ferrell and some of the other comedic actors improvising. Some of this is quite funny, although some of it misses the mark as well.
Up next is a Behind the Scenes section, containing a series of featurettes. The first is "A Short History of the ABA." This seven-minute bit is pretty self-explanatory and features interviews with former ABA players. "Re-Creating the ABA" is a 13-minute featurette about the casting of the extra ball players and set design that captures the look and feel of the late 1970s. The film's opening song is discussed in the five-minute "'Love Me Sexy' - The Story Behind the One Hit Wonder." Next, there is a three-minute bit on former NBA player Bill Walton's visit to the set. "Four Days in Flint" is a six-minute look at the location shooting in Flint, Michigan. Finally, "The Man Behind Semi-Pro" gives us a decent account of the film's development and director Kent Alterman. Lasting 24 minutes, this is the most substantial feature and is definitely worth a look. All of these featurettes, in fact, are surprisingly informative and manage to be much more interesting than the actual film.
Some promotional material finishes off the bonuses, including a music video for "Love Me Sexy," two mock interviews between Jackie and Dick Pepperfield (Andrew Daly) that look like 1970s video recordings, and three trailers. In addition, a digital copy of the film is available for download on Disc 2.
"Semi-Pro" is ultimately a disappointment, misusing all of its principle players with material that gives them few opportunities to be funny. If there is one thing the film demonstratively proves, it is that Will Ferrell is no actor; he is a comedian. When cast alongside people with genuine acting chops, like Woody Harrelson and (to my astonishment) André Benjamin, Ferrell comes across as a distraction in his own vehicle. The great irony is that while he has made a career out of playing a fool, this film does everything it can to make him look like one. Is it an accident that his 1970s afro makes him look a little like Big Bird?