Saturday, 15 June 2024

Sports comedy takes a run at being more than 'Semi-Pro'

SEMI-PRO (Rated R)


Funnyman Will Ferrell has developed a comedic persona that elevates him barely above the lazy, irresponsible man-child who is contradictorily both lovable and arrogant. This is an act he has perfected as Ron Burgundy, the TV anchorman with an inflated ego, as well as in a succession of various sports figures. He’s done his part to decimate figure skating, soccer, and NASCAR racing. A one-man wrecking crew, Ferrell has cultivated a legion of fans who may even cheer his more mediocre work.


Arguably, “Semi-Pro” is not in the major league status of “Talladega Nights,” where his race car driver Ricky Bobby was the obnoxiously funny showoff in competition with “Borat’s” Sacha Baron Cohen. This time, Ferrell’s Jackie Moon is a one-man conglomerate in the last year of the American Basketball Association’s existence. He’s the owner, coach and power forward for the fictional Flint (Michigan) Tropics, a team defined by its outlaw flair and sensational showmanship. Sporting an afro hairdo and the gaudy clothes of the 1970s, Jackie Moon is coasting on the residuals of his big one-hit song “Love Me Sexy.”


The film opens with Jackie Moon crooning his salacious hit song, which serves the purpose of establishing his character as the kind of outrageously brash self-promoter whose unpredictable behavior is certain to keep everyone on edge.


As the basketball season gets under way during America’s bicentennial year, Jackie soon learns that the ABA is going to be disbanded, and that only four teams will be absorbed into the more profitable and dominant NBA. A woeful team lacking any real talent, the Flint Tropics are not destined to be one of the teams merged into the NBA. But that won’t stop Jackie from pulling every stunt in the book.


The Tropics have one star player, the flamboyant Clarence “Downtown” Withers (Andre Benjamin), who changes his name with frequency, finally settling on Coffee Black as his moniker. He may be good, but he can’t carry a team full of league rejects.


To change his fortunes, Jackie trades the team’s washing machine for former NBA benchwarmer Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), a troubled player with real talent if he can overcome constant knee trouble and an unhealthy attraction to his old flame Lynn (Maura Tierney) who’s now with someone else.


Jackie, who seems modeled upon legendary baseball showman Bill Veeck and daredevil Evel Knievel, is constantly thinking of marketing ploys, some of which are manifestly stupid or dangerous.


To get fans in the seats, he offers free corn dogs to all ticket holders if the team scores 125 points, and then does his best to sabotage his teammates. Another stunt is offering an oversized $10,000 check to a spectator who makes a basket at a distance greater than half-court. When a homeless stoner (Jackie Earle Haley) sinks the ball, Jackie cooks up little tricks to avoid the payoff. Unwisely, Jackie also wrestles a bear in another stunt that goes horribly wrong.


“Semi-Pro” is full of caricatures of athletes, but not all of them come across as pure comedic figures. To be sure, Jackie Moon is all over the map as a buffoon, flailing wildly at the impossible task of putting together a championship caliber team. On the other hand, Monix and Coffee Black become the underdog heroes who are destined to succeed in a feel-good sports story, because after all that’s what you have to expect from teammates on the verge of reaching the comeback status.


The funniest characters are not even on the basketball court, turning up instead in the broadcast booth. Will Arnett’s Lou Redwood, a former player, is the color commentator with a colorful, and often profane, manner. His partner is Dick Pepperfield (Andrew Daly), more mild-mannered but equally adept at tossing sarcastic dialogue. When announcing the game, these two hurl insults at each other, but more often they snipe at the team and its fans. These guys are so funny that you get the sense they could easily be adlibbing their dialogue.


Feeling often like an improvised script, “Semi-Pro” may not be the best Will Ferrell comedic vehicle, but it certainly beats films like “Kicking and Screaming” and “A Night at the Roxbury.” Though not consistently shooting three-pointers, Ferrell hits the mark often enough with his silliness to make this film fun for anyone enjoying this type of comedy. Indeed, there are plenty of laughs.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


Horror films take on a life of their own when going into DVD release. “Automaton Transfusion” is a shockingly grisly zombie horror flick that follows three teens brazen enough to fight back a town full of swarming zombies.


Maybe you caught this film at Screamfest 2006, but if not, now’s your chance to load up on extremes of gore and bloodshed. “Awake” allows one to experience the pain and terror of “anesthetic awareness,” which happens when a man remains conscious but paralyzed throughout an operation and is forced to endure excruciating pain.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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