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Ferrell turns court jester in 'Semi-Pro'

The comedian applies his antics to the basketball world of the 1970s for a movie where plot takes a backseat to skits.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / February 29, 2008

'Semi-pro': Will Ferrell (c.) models an Afro and short shorts in his new comedy.

Courtesy of frank masi/new line cinema

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Having romped through the worlds of figure skating, NASCAR racing, and soccer, Will Ferrell takes on the world of basketball in "Semi-Pro." The American Basketball Association, to be exact.

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Ferrell plays one-hit-wonder Jackie Moon, whose sole disco hit "Love Me Sexy" has enabled him to buy the (fictional) Flint, Mich., Tropics. He also coaches and plays power forward. You were maybe expecting Ferrell to sit on the sidelines during playtime?

The ABA, which lasted from 1967 to 1976, was the poor relation of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and "Semi-Pro" milks the mediocrity for all its worth. The Tropics are pretty much defunct even before the league collapses. The movie is about how they go out in glory, except, of course, glory in a Will Ferrell movie isn't all it's cracked to be. In any case, his films are funniest when he's on the skids. Victory does not become him.

Ferrell is pretty much the whole show, although a rather humorless Woody Harrelson also puts in the time as a former NBA benchwarmer. None of Ferrell's movies have ever really done justice to the best of his "Saturday Night Live" work, but those of us who love his comedy have learned to take the good with the bad. And sometimes the bad isn't even so bad – the soccer comedy "Kicking and Screaming," for example, one of his few comedy flops, has a sequence in it where he goes on an overcaffeinated rampage that's paralyzingly hilarious.

In "Semi-Pro," he spends ample time on the basketball court looking dopey and gauche. He also has a few unprintable outbursts directed at the ref that are vintage Ferrell. I wish he had surrounded himself with comic actors who challenged him more. Ferrell often seems to be in his own private universe in his movies – has any actor ever made less eye-contact with his co-stars? – and he could benefit from a bit more one-on-one.

Comedies these days are often patched together like a series of disconnected skits with little regard for plot or logic or characterization. Whenever "Semi-Pro" tries for anything resembling a narrative, it falls apart or turns mawkish, and this is typical of Ferrell's comedies in general. I keep wishing that Ferrell, in his flat-out humorous mode, would attempt something more than just a glorified gigglefest. And I'm not thinking of "Stranger Than Fiction," by the way, in which he was blanked out by that film's metaseriousness.

We'll never know how much he's capable of – how many different ways he can make us laugh – unless he shows a bit more ambition. He's an NBA talent making ABA movies. Grade: B

Rated R for profanity and sexual situations.

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