Thursday, March 6, 2008

Semi-Pro: Pro-foundly awful

Semi-Pro (2008) • View trailer for Semi-Pro
One star (out of five). Rating: R, for relentless profanity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy DVD: Semi-Pro • Buy Blu-Ray: Semi-Pro [Blu-ray]

Five minutes into Semi-Pro, I became convinced that this film had been a victim of the writers strike, and that the cast had been told to improvise every line.

And had done spectacularly poorly.
While rehearsing for his team's next deranged half-time performance, owner
Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell, right) is surprised and disappointed to discover
that newcomer Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) has been "promoted" to head
coach by all the other players.

But no: Scot Armstrong (Old School) was paid real money to "write" this un-script, as relentless — and pointless — a barrage of profanity and potty humor as we've seen since Matt Stone and Trey Parker unleashed the nonstop raunch of 2004's Team America: World Police.

Is Hollywood the land of opportunity, or what?

I struggle to believe that maybe, somehow, dismaying garbage such as this qualifies as male bonding humor for arrested adolescents swilling beer in frat houses. After all, plenty of people seem to be entertained by "reality" TV train-wrecks such as Big Brother; Semi-Pro is just as fascinating from the standpoint of being jaw-droppingly dreadful.

But even by the already low standards set by Will Ferrell's earlier moron comedies — Talladega Nights and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy come to mind — this one's pretty thin gruel. Like Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence before him, Ferrell has come to believe that his fans will watch anything, so there's no need to try very hard.

One hopes the fans in question will rebel — and soon — just as they did with Murphy and Lawrence.

Semi-Pro takes its almost-plot from a thin veneer of sports fact. Not all that long ago, two basketball leagues existed in these grand United States: the NBA we still know and love, and the renegade American Basketball Association, which lasted nine seasons from 1967 through 1976. The ABA was the colorful rogue league, known for its red, white and blue basketballs and P.T. Barnum-esque promotions. Anything that could get more fans into seats was considered fair game.

League rivalry got pretty bitter, and the situation finally was resolved when four ABA teams — the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs — were folded into the NBA. The remaining ABA teams were disbanded, along with the league itself.

So much for the history lesson.

Ferrell stars here as Jackie Moon, a one-song musical wonder who parlayed the money made from his sultry hit, "Love Me Sexy," into ownership of the ABA Tropics, based in Michael Moore's beloved Flint, Mich. When not inflicting audiences with his song — a spoof of the sensuous ballads made famous by Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra — Jackie takes the hands-on approach to team ownership; he's also coach and star power forward.

The members of the Tropics don't have enough personality to be considered misfits; the only player given some actual dimension is Clarence "Coffee Black" Withers (André Benjamin), who might be good enough to make the jump to the NBA. Otherwise, these so-called actors don't hit their stage marks any better than they sink baskets during game play.

The crisis arrives when the ABA team owners are told of the impending merger with the NBA, and the latter's promise to accept the four best teams. This motivates Jackie to ever-crazier heights of showmanship and wacky morale-building, in an effort to drag his team from the ABA cellar. He even trades a major appliance for former NBA benchwarmer Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), who — rather than sink into a depression, at having reached this lowest rung of the ladder — seizes the opportunity to finally make his career amount to something.

Cue an inspirational fanfare from Theodore Shapiro's soundtrack. Oh, wait, no: He's just as lousy at composing as Armstrong is at writing.

Since Ferrell and his co-stars can't convincingly hold our attention as actual basketball players, director Kent Alterman scrambles to fill these 90 minutes with an assortment of colorful supporting characters: bickering on-court play announcers Lou Redwood and Dick Pepperfield (Will Arnett and Andrew Daley, not nearly as funny as they seem to think); Tropics team manager Bobby Dee (Andy Richter, utterly superfluous); and a stoned fan named Dukes (Jackie Earle Haley, who should have known better), who sinks a cross-court shot and wins a $10,000 check that Jackie can't afford to make good.

Based on his screen time and the effort expended, I'd guess Haley spent one day on the set. Even so, whatever they paid him was too much.

Maura Tierney, well recognized from her ongoing role on TV's ER, has an unexpectedly straight role as Lynn, survivor of a previous relationship with Ed. Surprise, surprise: They're still hot for each other, despite the presence of a new guy in her life. His response to her spontaneous unfaithfulness is an eyebrow-raiser, although just par for the course here.

Tierney's acting chops are so vastly superior to everybody else, that she seems to have wandered in from a different film. But never fear: Armstrong's script finds a way to cut her down to the rest of this bottom-of-the-barrel nonsense.

Far too much of this film is devoted to random groups of characters demeaning women and swearing at each other; the F-bombs quickly grow tiresome through repetition. Perhaps by design, the film is all talk and no action in the sexual arena, just like its primary characters; anybody hoping for naked cheerleaders is destined for disappointment. The R-rating is strictly for dialogue.

Tierney and Harrelson get the only sex scene, and they're both fully dressed. That's also odd.

Semi-Pro marks Alterman's directorial debut; I see from his résumé that he's a "veteran development executive" (whatever that is) at New Line Cinema, which has released this misbegotten film. Alterman directs about as well as Ferrell plays basketball; both need to stick to their previous vocations.

Oh, wait: You may have heard that New Line just went belly-up. So maybe Alterman wasn't so hot a development executive, either.

I'd like to think Semi-Pro is bad enough that — as with the up-to-that-point-unstoppable Farrelly brothers, who crapped out with their ghastly remake of The Heartbreak Kid — the public will wise up and stay home.

We shall see.

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