[Screen It]

(2008) (Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson) (R)

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Comedy: With the help of a new and temperamental teammate, the owner/coach/player of a 1970s era ABA basketball franchise tries to inspire his squad to win so that they'll be one of the few teams folded into the NBA.
It's 1976 and Jackie Moon (WILL FERRELL) is the owner, coach and star player of the Flint Michigan Tropics. They're the lowly ABA team -- consisting of the likes of Clarence 'Coffee Black' Withers (ANDRE BENJAMIN), Bee Bee Ellis (DeRAY DAVIS), Vakidis (PETER CORNELL), Twiggy Munson (JOSH BRAATEN) and Scootsie Double Day (JAY PHILLIPS) -- that he purchased with the profits of his one-hit-wonder song.

With play-by-play commentators Dick Pepperfield (ANDREW DALY) and Lou Redwood (WILL ARNETT) often outnumbering those in attendance, save for perennial stoned fan Dukes (JACKIE EARLE HALEY), things don't look good for the Tropics. That's even with the addition of temperamental player Ed Monix (WOODY HARRELSON) who's been traded to the team for a washing machine.

It gets even worse when Jackie learns that the league is planning to fold, with only a few teams earmarked to join the rival NBA. Convincing the commission that the best teams in the ABA should get a shot, Jackie wants to get his squad on a winning streak. Unfortunately, he's as bad a coach as he is a player.

All of which means Ed -- who's trying to get back with his former love, Lynn (MAURA TIERNEY) -- decides to step up and take over. As their fortunes seem to change for the better, the players must contend with various external and interpersonal issues that arise during their run.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
For every Tom Brady, Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson, there are thousands of professional athletes who clearly aren't as famous, and sometimes aren't even known to many outside a particular team or sport's fan base. Throw in farm teams, foreign squads, arena leagues and semi-pro entities, and the number of lesser known participants grows even larger, although with the latter, those in the know pretty much boils down to just friends, family and a smattering of diehard ticket holders.

Life is far from glamorous for such athletes as they're certainly playing for pride or fun rather than fame and/or riches, even if many possess the pipe dream that they might someday, somehow, make it to the big leagues. As in real life, professional sports certainly outweigh semi-professional ones in the movies, although there are certainly notable, if not always exactly exceptional entries regarding the latter group.

The aptly titled "Semi-Pro" hopes to be one of the stellar ones, and it certainly has the asset of a certain famous commodity in it. That would be Will Ferrell, who once again plays an over the top sports figure in a presumably goofy, silly and/or outrageous comedy.

Alas, Mr. Ferrell -- star of similar genre picks such as "Blades of Glory" and "Talladega Night" -- appears to have blown a comedic tendon as this pic comes up lame. It certainly works for its laughs, but instead limps, struggles and trips its way through 100-some minutes of repetitive, recycled and redundant material. Die-hard fans may give the flick and their beloved comedy figure a pass simply from built-up goodwill, but trust me, this is probably the comedian's weakest effort to date.

Granted, I've never been one of Ferrell's biggest supporters (as I've found him far better in his old "Saturday Night Live" skit work or off-beat films such as "Stranger Than Fiction"), but at least there's almost always something present that manages to elicit a belly laugh, chuckle, or simply a smile from yours truly. Unfortunately, this offering is nothing but an air ball.

And that's not just because the minor league sports comedy has been done before (see "Slap Shot" or "Bull Durham"), or that the same also holds true for a send-up of the era (the film is set in of 1976 when four teams from the American Basketball Association were merged into the rival NBA, with the rest going the way of the Ford Pinto).

Instead, the problem is two-fold. For starters, having Ferrell do the passive-aggressive, man-child character might have been amusing the first time around, but it's more than old hat now. Yes, the genie is out of the bottle, the magic is gone, and said character and related jokes have run their course. Time to move along, nothing to see here.

The bigger issue, however, is that the material just isn't clever, creative and/or funny enough to score. Of course, without heeding the preceding paragraph, writer Scot Armstrong and director Kent Alterman simply keep going to the proverbial well time and time again, obviously not realizing it's bone dry.

Beyond the repetitive Ferrell character bits (watch Jackie Moon preen, have tantrums like a child, be oblivious to how goofy he is, etc.), running gags of Will Arnett as a chain-smoking and boozing TV announcer whose observational remarks show why he's in the minor leagues of broadcasting or Jackie Earle Haley as a shirtless stoner (just when the actor seemed to have gotten his career back on track decades after "Breaking Away" with his Oscar-nominated role in "Little Children") similarly fall flat.

Even Woody Harrelson (a sports comedy veteran from "White Men Can't Jump") can't do anything to spruce up the material as a rival player traded to the team (for a washing machine -- that and the team being named the Flint Michigan Tropics is about as clever as the comedy gets), and a subplot featuring him and his former lover (played by Maura Tierney looking completely out of place here) similarly goes absolutely nowhere.

When Ferrell's character participates in a closed-cage match with a bear or he and the other players goof around with a gun that they presume is empty, one starts to hope that maybe just maybe, something bad will happen to put them and/or us out of the collective misery this "comedy" offering afflicts on all involved. With the title "Semi-Pro" giving it too much credit, this feels like amateur night at best, and is anything but a slam dunk. The film rates as a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed February 14, 2008 / Posted February 29, 2008

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