Saturday, March 08, 2008

Review - Semi-Pro

Will Ferrell is the funniest actor currently working in American cinema. Sure, there are many better actors around than Ferrell, and many who could be considered more imaginative, but in terms of film stars who have made me laugh consistently over the past five years, nobody comes close. Aside from a few forays into gentler comic fare – such as Straighter than Fiction or Melinda and Melinda – Ferrell's onscreen persona has hardly altered in that period. From film to film he has portrayed the same self-important blowhard, a clueless buffoon who thinks he's the smartest and most charismatic person in the room, and it's a character that has worked pretty well for him so far, but is the strain beginning to show? Ferrell's career has survived the odd turkey so far (Bewitched), and it will probably survive a film as bad as
Semi-Pro without too much lasting damage, but the abject nature of this picture should still serve as a warning to the star. This is the third near-identical sports-based comedy Ferrell has released in the space of two years, and it reeks of complacency.

Semi-Pro's Jackie Moon is one of Ferrell's broadest and least interesting characterisations to date. The owner/coach/player of the Flint Michigan tropics, as well as a onetime chart-topper with Love Me Sexy, Jackie is a loudmouth and an egotist, who is more concerned with staging publicity-gaining stunts than working on tactics with his misfiring team. The times they are a-changing, though, and when the ABA announces a merger with the NBA, the very future of the Tropics is placed in jeopardy. To survive, they'll need to finish in the top four at the end of the season – an unlikely prospect given their miserable form – so Jackie trades the team washing machine for a veteran NBA benchwarmer (Woody Harrelson) to turn their fortunes around.

Including the plot, everything about
Semi-Pro feels decidedly second-hand. The film has been directed Kent Alterman, an erstwhile Executive Producer making his debut, and he displays no feel for comedy or storytelling. Things start to feel a tad saggy early on, and in many scenes the set-up is so laborious we can see the payoff coming long before it arrives (Ferrell and co. playing with a supposedly empty gun, for example). With no real shape to the script, the film generally consists of various overlong set-pieces strung together in a barely-connected fashion, and the frequent repetition of various gags palls quickly, with the occasional bear attacks only serving to remind the viewer of how superior Anchorman was to this tedious fare.

The actors do the best with what they've got. Harrelson has a commendable go at building a real character, and André Benjamin is fine as the showboating Clarence "Coffee" Black, although neither actor offers any surprises. As usual in Ferrell's films, there's a large ensemble hanging around the edges of the story, with Jackie Earle Haley and Andrew Daly having a few decent bits as a stoned fan and a commentator respectively; but even their contributions are only, well, semi-funny. As for Ferrell, he's never been less amusing. He doesn't bring anything memorable or consistent to the role of Jackie Moon, and he resorts to simply shouting most of his lines in a futile attempt to breathe life into
Semi-Pro's feeble script. This is a real backwards step from last year's tight, funny and well-directed Blades of Glory, and perhaps it indicates that Ferrell should try finding a new avenue for his comedy. He may have hit upon a winning formula, but Semi-Pro shows us the danger of going back to same well too many times.