Will Ferrell, playing out the string

Posted: February 29, 2008

Mildly diverting and utterly dispensable, Semi-Pro stars Will Ferrell as the coach/owner/forward of the Tropics, a Michigan hoops franchise in 1976, the waning days of the American Basketball Association.

It was an era of expansive hair, abbreviated shorts and a roundball resembling a gumball.

It was also an era of funk music. From the proceeds of his Barry White-lite hit, "Love Me Sexy," Jackie Moon (Ferrell) buys the Flint-based Tropics, cellar-dwellers whose few fans number potheads and head cases. Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" and LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" drive the film with considerably more horsepower than Ferrell's one-trick-pony performance.

Jackie's hopes are as high as his 'fro, and his IQ as low as his points-per-game average. When he learns that at the end of the season the ABA will be dissolved, its four top teams absorbed into the NBA, Jackie challenges his squad to fight its way to fourth place. Which is a considerably longer shot than a three-pointer.

As yet another benign lunatic in competitive sports (see Blades of Glory, Kicking and Screaming, Talladega Nights), Ferrell has no new moves. So he (and his enabler, director Kent Alterman) try to coax laughs by presenting Jackie as a neuter who imagines himself as a sex god. See Jackie pose nekkid as a Playgirl centerfold, a strategically-placed basketball shielding his basket.

Semi-Pro sporadically comes alive when Woody Harrelson as Monix, a onetime NBA player, bounces onto the court. Movie geeks will appreciate the casting, as Harrelson, himself a semi-pro at playing benign lunatics in competitive sports (see White Men Can't Jump, Kingpin, Play It to the Bone) more or less invented the type that Ferrell has spent a career parodying.

Harrelson is an actor playing a character. He takes his whack-job role seriously and this provokes laughs.

Ferrell, a sketch comic parodying a caricature, evidently thinks that spouting the 10-letter epithet is intrinsically funny. It's not. I loved Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction; liked him in Old School and Talladega Nights. Yet, except for a skyhook or two, his work in Semi-Pro is strictly amateur.

Ferrell and Harrelson have some chemistry, but the movie's funnier sequences involve Harrelson and Maura Tierney as his ex. André Benjamin (yes, André 3000 of OutKast) is charming in a featured role as the Tropics' most promising player, and Jackie Earle Haley, more out there than Cheech and Chong put together, is genuinely funny as the Tropics' number-one fan.


Semi-Pro ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Kent Alterman. With Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin and Maura Tierney. Distributed by New Line Cinema.

Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.

Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.

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