Semi-Pro is much better than Blades of Glory, which wasn't nearly as good as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which was a little better than Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was almost as funny as Old School, which was better than anything else Will Ferrell had done up to that point — except maybe Dick, which nobody saw and even fewer remember. This is what it's come down to with Ferrell: grading his movies in various shades of enh because each one blends into the next till they're all one giant gray blob of feh. Which sells short the semi-funny Semi-Pro — essentially Major League clad in 1970s short-shorts and topped with a few 'fros. Still, if you've seen one Will Ferrell sports comedy, you're good. Too bad he couldn't have started with this one.
After all these others, though, Semi-Pro — written by the man responsible for last year's unspeakable Heartbreak Kid remake — is hardly a movie anyway. It's more like a series of Will Ferrell sketches occasionally interrupted by a decent sports-redemption comedy starring Woody Harrelson as an aging NBA vet who's come crashing back down to the lesser ABA.
Harrelson plays former Boston Celtic benchwarmer Eddie Monix, who sports a championship ring around his neck — he figures it's better to keep it hidden on a chain than displayed on his finger, where it would advertise his shame of never having actually gotten off the bench in the finals. Cast out of the NBA, Eddie meets the woman he screwed over and left behind (played by Maura Tierney, now married to a dude who likes to watch, played by former Daily Show-off Rob Corddry).
Eddie is the archetypal sports-movie hero: a hobbled vet in need of the last big win before he hangs it up, Crash Davis in a tight tank top. But Harrelson plays him perfectly, looking left while shooting right — meaning, just when you think he's about to go cheap and broad, he feints with ease toward the thoughtful and subtle. This guy's no schmuck — he's a terrific character in a nifty sports movie about the final season of the American Basketball Association's existence, before four of its teams were absorbed by the NBA.
Another terrific character is Andre Benjamin's Clarence "Coffee" Black, the hot-shit centerpiece of the Flint Tropics, one of the teams about to be adios'd out of the ABA. The OutKast frontman doesn't stoop to clichés, refusing to play Coffee's bluster for cheap giggles; he has real soul.
Actually, the whole movie is stocked with fine, fleshed-out characters, chief among them former MAD-TV cast member Andrew Daly's sorta-bent play-by-play man, Dick Pepperfield; Jackie Earle Haley's stoned-outta-his-gourd fan, Dukes; Andy Richter's man-boy locker-room attendant, Bobby Dee; and Matt Walsh's foulmouthed ref, Father Pat. There's not a single unsurprising or unlikable character among the bunch.
Except for Ferrell's Jackie Moon. Because no matter how funny his sole hit single ("Love Me Sexy," played a few too many times) and no matter his proclivity for profanity (this has to be the cursingest Will Ferrell movie, which counts for something), it's just a casual walk in petrified footsteps. Ferrell is once again playing some nutty dude in a sports-movie parody that's totally enjoyable while you're watching it but instantly forgettable. He's almost in the way of these movies at this point, the same way his pal and occasional co-star Ben Stiller is when playing some dim nebbish, which is at least once a year. The movie's better when he's on the bench.
Ferrell, who proved he could do subdued and poignant in the undervalued Stranger Than Fiction, has given up shooting from outside the 3-point line. You've seen this act before: He'll speak really low for a really long time, then throw raging tantrums and say stupid things and have to get the gang back together for one last defining moment and maybe even spawn a catchphrase or two.
At least Ferrell has his act down to a science, which must be a relief for a first-timer like director Kent Alterman, who valiantly tries to tweak the formula by adding a dash more sincerity and humanity to the froth but doesn't get too adventurous. In the end, Semi-Pro is comedy comfort food, something powdered and poured from a box.
What distinguishes Semi-Pro from its predecessors (not only those starring Ferrell but also such lesser lights as Dodgeball and Balls of Fury) is that it's a slightly darker movie — one made for grown-ups, hence the R rating. One surprisingly tense scene is set around a poker table and begins with someone being called a "jive turkey" (as opposed to the apparently more acceptable "cocksucker") before a painfully prolonged Deer Hunter re-enactment breaks out. The audience half-expects someone to blow his own head clean off — Jackie Moon, preferably.