Empty"Semi-Pro" is a mess, but it's a likable one. This Will Ferrell comedy takes place within the ABA pro basketball league of the 1970s, which gave the sport the multicolored "beach ball," which did not survive, and the three-point shot, which most definitely did. It was a league fueled by showmanship and promotions more than athletic agility, a league fondly remembered for its small arenas, disappearing franchises and, of course, Dr. J -- the magical Julius Erving.
Written by Scot Armstrong ("Old School") and directed by newcomer Kent Alterman, "Semi-Pro" imagines a fictional ABA team from Flint, Mich., run by Ferrell's Jackie Moon, a one-hit singing sensation, owner, coach and power forward. It doesn't have much of a story, though, just a series of gags and comic bits that take us through the Tropics' final season.
New Line will do fine with this film, which will draw Ferrell and basketball fans including those with fond memories of that red, white and blue ball. The comedy is sloppy, crude and contains far too many misfires, but the film does capture the old ABA spirit in its ungainly struggles to wrestle laughs from seriously mediocre material. After a modest theatrical career, "Semi-Pro" will probably be a boys' night staple on DVD.
In 1976, the ABA in its final season engineered a "merger" with the establishment NBA, essentially dissolving the league in return for a big paycheck for its owners and bringing its four most successful franchises into the NBA -- Dr. J's New York Nets, the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers. Since Moon's big though elastic ego is completely tied up in his Flint Tropics -- "Let's get Tropical!" -- he is crushed by this business decision.
He demands that the four best, not most financially successful, franchises make it into the NBA, which the ABA commissioner momentarily agrees to. This leads to what little story exists in "Semi-Pro" -- the quest of an underdog team to finish fourth, lead by Jackie's latest acquisition, a former Celtics benchwarmer named Monix (Woody Harrelson).
Most of the film, though, is given over to Jackie's endless promotional stunts, from a halftime three-point free throw by a fan for $10,000 (which Jackie does not have) to corndog nights (he doesn't have that either) and bear wrestling. Or the night the team's players all wear eyeliner that stings everyone's eyes or the night of the big brawl with the opposing team during a TV commercial break. Or the poker game where a unloaded gun gets introduced into the game, which turns out to have a bullet in one chamber. Well, you get the picture.
The play-by-play announcers are pretty funny, but on what radio station would their obscenities ever be allowed? This, like most everything else in the film, is a stretch for laughs at the expense of logic and predictability. For instance, would anyone in the audience even imagine that there isn't at least one bullet loaded in that gun?
Ferrell, Harrelson and musician-actor Andre Benjamin, who plays what passes for the Tropics' star, keep the lowbrow comedy friendly and engaging even if actual laughs are few. A love story between Harrelson and Maura Tierney, whose boyfriend is a big fan of Monix's, is hardly worth bothering with and even a bit off-putting. Ditto a running gag involving a stoner, played by Jackie Earle Haley, trying to collect his $10,000 prize money. The wrestling bear does get a few laughs, however.
Behind-the-scenes personnel do make the film feel like a '70s movie with the insistent soundtrack of era music, low light levels and erratic action.
New Line Cinema
A Mosaic Media Group production
Director: Kent Alterman
Screenwriter: Scot Armstrong
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Executive producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Michael Aguilar, Toby Emmerich, Cale Boyter, Kent Alterman, David Householter
Director of photography: Shane Hurlbut
Production designer: Clayton Hartley
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Co-producer: Josh Church
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Editors: Debra Neil-Fisher, Peter Teschner
Jackie Moon: Will Ferrell
Monix: Woody Harrelson
Clarence "Downtown" Withers: Andre Benjamin
Lynn: Maura Tierney
Lou Redwood: Will Arnett
Bobby Dee: Andy Richter
Commissioner: David Koechner
Kyle: Rob Corddry
Bee Bee Ellis: DeRay Davis
Twiggy Munson: Josh Braaten
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: R