Dir: Kent Alterman. US. 2008. 91 mins.
Characteristically anarchic, loosely structured and unabashedly blue, Will Ferrell's new comedy Semi-Pro ably skewers both second-tier professional basketball and the regrettable fashion of the early 1970s, ranking in the top half of the comedian's roster of sports parodies (a list which includes Kicking and Screaming, Talladega Nights and last year's Blades of Glory).
The ensemble comedy Wild Hogs roared to a $39 million domestic opening weekend in a similar frame last year, en route to an impressive $168 million gross, making it one of spring's biggest hits. Those numbers will likely be slightly out of reach for Semi-Pro given its 'R' rating, but a strong promotional push for the film - which already has ancillary marketing support in the form of deodorant commercials starring Ferrell's character and a photo spread in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue opposite Heidi Klum - will drive huge first weekend box office. Positive word-of-mouth, meanwhile, should help the movie outstrip Ferrell's last big starring R-rated comedy, Old School, which pulled in $75 million in 2000.
Ferrell's profile abroad has yet to mirror his success in the US. His movies routinely earn 75 to 90 percent of their theatrical gate domestically; Talladega Nights, for instance, grossed only $14 million of its $162 million haul internationally. With the worldwide popularity of basketball, though, there's ample reason to believe that Semi-Pro stands perhaps the best chance of reversing that trend. Regardless, solid reception in the DVD marketplace will follow.
Semi-Pro centres around Jackie Moon (Ferrell), an affable if dimwitted former singer who has parlayed the fame surrounding his one hit song into local celebrity status as the owner-player-coach of the Flint Tropics, a floundering team in depressed small-town Michigan. As part of the struggling ABA league, Moon relies more on half-time gimmicks and wild promotions to get people in the door than any actual basketball acumen.
That has to change, though, when Moon receives word of the ABA's impending merger with the NBA, the country's pre-eminent hoops conference. The Tropics have to win games and pack the stands if they want to be one of the two teams to survive consolidation. To that end, Moon trades the team's washing machine for Flint native and former NBA champion Ed Monnix (Harrelson), and begrudgingly takes more of a backseat to Ed and the high-flying Clarence Withers (Benjamin), the squad's most talented player.
The film is the feature directorial debut of Kent Alterman, the former executive vice president of production at New Line Cinema, and a producer on small screen fare like Strangers With Candy and TV Nation. As a filmmaker, Alterman evidences a genial style which is neither disastrous nor particularly memorable; he simply gives his actors a wide berth.
As penned by Old School co-writer Scot Armstrong, many of the movie's bigger laughs, including a Deer Hunter-inspired roulette scene and the asides of the Tropics' announcers (Will Arnett and Andrew Daly), lean on the improvisational talents of its stars. More scripted set pieces (the wrestling of a bear, a lurching dance of vomitous pantomiming from Moon, who's never before thrown up) don't seem quite fully fleshed out. The notable exception of the latter category involves the invention of the alley-oop, now a staple of basketball highlight reels.
While Semi-Pro is not graphic in any other regards, the film's language is wilfully profane, which could be a bit of a commercial stumbling block theatrically with younger teens, though Ferrell's core audience has presumably aged with him and won't mind. Within the film, the issue isn't necessarily the vulgarity itself, but the fact that it frequently seems so arbitrary, substituting for stronger jokes. A little bit less of this would go a long way.
No amount or combination of shame, absurdity and unflattering outfits seem to dint Ferrell's fierce commitment to character, and here he again amusingly jumps through all sorts of hoops of humiliation, proving himself possibly the least vain actor working today - a matter which is much to the benefit of his films.
Harrelson, who famously displayed his hoops skills in 1992's White Men Can't Jump, seems perfectly at home back in this setting. As announcer Dick Pepperfield, meanwhile, Daly (who also appears in the forthcoming What Happens in Vegas) makes a strong, breakout impression.
Composer Theodore Shapiro's score is unobtrusive, the perfect counterpoint to energetic musical selections from the period, including songs from Barry White, The Ohio Players, Brothers Johnson, Sly & The Family Stone and Kool & The Gang.
All horns and buttery whispers, meanwhile, Ferrell's credible performance of Moon's signature R&B-themed hit Love Me Sexy, produced by Nile Rodgers, is another high point. Should acting begin to bore Ferrell, he could easily make do as a lounge singer.
New Line Cinema
Mosiac Media Group
New Line Cinema
Lauren Shuler Donner
Director of photography
Jackie Earle Haley