I am making a new law. Let’s call it the “Law of Diminishing Shorts.” This law will state that any film featuring Will Ferrell in 70s-style basketball shorts, that is, short shorts, cannot try to be serious. Ever. So let it be written, so let it be done.
Such is the central flaw of Ferrell’s latest 1970s farce “Semi-Pro.” The story takes place in the world of the American Basketball Association (ABA), facing its waning days and the promise of a merger with the NBA. All the ridiculous grandstanding and flamboyancy of the 70s combined with the almost-ludicrous energy of professional basketball makes for a rather exotic locale.
And this is the kind of world that Ferrell does best in. His pompous fools Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby could not exist in a normal world; they need to be surrounded by characters just as silly as they are. The same is true for Jackie Moon of “Semi-Pro.” When he starts the film by singing his love ballad “Love Me Sexy,” you think things are off on the right track.
So you can imagine the disappointment every time the filmmakers try to plug in a serious subplot or a relatively serious emotional moment. It doesn’t jive with Jackie Moon, and so he wanders through the picture, occasionally wrestling a bear or jumping over cheerleaders while wearing roller skates. Besides the occasional scene with Andy Richter or Will Arnett, there seems to be no one who will play along.
The serious moments I refer to mostly revolve around an aging ex-NBA player (Woody Harrelson) who is trying to connect with his ex-girlfriend. The pieces of the subplot are sparse and random, and create nothing but sluggishness as we wait for Ferrell’s next crazy stunt.
Also in the mix are a couple of mismatched commentators, the afro-hooded “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin), and a clueless hippie (Jackie Earle Haley). These are the characters that make Jackie feel at home, and the comedy is strongest when it indulges in their ridiculous banter. The best scene of the film is the one that most feels like improvisation. It features poker, a gun, and Tim Meadows, and that’s all you need to know.
Some might consider this a sign that Will Ferrell needs to move on, forget the 70s, and start doing some more sophisticated comedy or serious roles. I would have to disagree. In the right hands, Ferrell’s energy and persona can work wonders. They just have to be harnessed to the right task, in the right world. A clown’s just not as funny outside of the circus.
One thing is for sure, though. He stills has that manic energy and conviction that makes him talented, in my eyes. Few comedians will jump through the hoops that Ferrell does with such gusto, and a feeling of genuine investment in the often foolish concerns of his characters. It takes a sort of courage that you don’t often find. Unfortunately for him, “Semi-Pro” was a losing battle from the beginning.