Movie Review: ‘Semi-Pro’ is only Semi-Good

poster-semipro02.jpgA long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there existed a league known as the American Basketball Association.

This was not something made up by some screenwriter with a vivid imagination. It really did exist, from 1967 to 1976, in an era before Star Wars, ESPN and 24-hour cable TV. It had slam dunks, alley-oops, three-point shots, teams located in distant burgs like San Antonio, Memphis and Salt Lake City, and a famous red-white-and-blue basketball. It featured flashy players such as Doctor J, Moses Malone, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore and a host of others. It fit right in with the wild and funky Seventies.

And four of its teams really did merge into the NBA. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

This is the setting for Semi-Pro, which pays tribute to the ABA the old-fashioned way — by making fun of the excesses of the league. Will Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, a hit singer who is the player/owner/coach of the ABA’s Flint Tropics. Times are tough, though: it’s 1976, there are no fans in the stands, and there are rumors swirling about the ABA’s survival.

The story revolves around the team’s struggle to be part of the merger of the league with the NBA. Only four teams can be accepted into the NBA, though. Jackie convinces the owners that it ought to be incentive-based: the best four teams ought to make it in. Of course, there’s one problem. His team is dead last.

So what to do about that? The story revolves around the Tropics’ attempts to make it into fourth place so it can be admitted into the NBA. While Jackie is a colorful promoter willing to do anything to put people into the seats — including wrestling a live bear — the fact is he is a disaster as a coach. Newly-acquired Ed Monix, played by Woody Harrelson, shows the team how to play real basketball, and the team comes together and starts winning. It’s the classic underdog story all over again.

It’s not a bad cast with André Benjamin, Will Arnett, Rob Corddry, Andy Richter, plenty of funny guys. It seemed to me that director Kent Alterman was looking to capture the magic that was so successful in both of Will Ferrell’s previous successes Anchorman and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. One movie riffed on the bad-hair, bad-wardrobe Seventies, while the other riffed on NASCAR. Combine the two together with a cast of funnymen, and you would seem to have a sure-fire formula for success. Right?

Well, that all depends on the script. On the one hand, the movie’s attempts to riff on the Seventies were very effective. The bad Seventies outfits these hoops players used to wear, with the short shorts and the gaudy colors, are ripe for parody. So is the bad hair. Will Ferrell’s Afro is funny to look at. The movie did do an effective job of bringing back not simply the ABA, but the ABA era, to life, with the Tropics taking on teams such as the New York Nets and the Spirits of St. Louis.

Of course, the Flint Tropics were never in the ABA. (Flint’s a hockey town anyway, but never mind.) The Tropics sort of represent all the teams in the ABA that were in the league but didn’t make it. The inspiration for the Tropics clearly is the Floridians franchise that was in the ABA for many years. That franchise actually did feature the famous bikini-clad “ballgirls” that you saw in Semi-Pro. It was a deliberate move to put them in the movie cheering for the Tropics, because these ballgirls were a real part of the ABA. Of course, so were the stunts, the promotions-gone-bad, and the wild and crazy players who sometimes were late for games.

That was all good, and if they had kept it real I would have probably gone along with the gag and suspended my disbelief about this whole incentive-based merger deal that was cooked up. But the inconsistencies and inaccuracies about the ABA just drove me nuts.

Among other things, the merger never did happen in mid-season as it did in this movie. It happened after the ABA season was over. So I had to suspend disbelief on that point. Second, they showed a scene in the movie where the Tropics took on the Anaheim Amigos. I guess they were winking and nodding at the audience by including the Amigos. Heck, the Flint Tropics were never in the ABA anyway, so you might as well have them play the Amigos, who of course were out of business long before 1976.

There was a scene in the movie where André Benjamin’s character Clarence “Coffee” Black was traded from Flint to the San Antonio Spurs in order to help him get into the NBA. But that plot point made no sense to me because the NBA would have signed him anyway, regardless of whether Flint made the league or not. The NBA would have had a dispersal draft set up to take him anyway, so he would have made it no matter what.

They also did quite a bit of revisionist history with respect to the standings in the old league. The movie featured a big game where Flint took on the supposed “top” team in the ABA, the San Antonio Spurs. But the Spurs were never the top team in the ABA the entire time they were there! It was the Denver Nuggets that had the best regular season in 1976, but they were beaten for the title in the ABA finals by Julius Erving’s New York Nets.

That’s another thing this movie completely forgets: the ABA had playoffs in 1976!! I guess the Flint Tropics were so wrapped up with finishing in fourth place that they completely forgot about the playoffs. I guess the filmmakers hoped the audience would, too.

Anyway, suffice it to say these inconsistencies drove me nuts. What started out as a pretty promising movie completely fell apart in the second half. The whole fight-to-finish-in-fourth-place plot line got stale in a hurry. By the end of the movie, it was pointless, too. As well, the comedy material was stretched way too thin. Some of the routines were just plain gross and tasteless. And you can only go so far by making jokes about the Seventies.

The real disappointment for me was Will Ferrell. He was just embarrassing as Jackie Moon, an unlikeable, complete dolt of a character. No wonder so many fans didn’t go to games in Flint, then — not with this fool Moon as an owner.

Give this man Ferrell a character that is actually funny, and he cannot be touched: Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, you name it. At least Ferrell showed some restraint with those characters and didn’t spend the whole movie acting like a maniac. Ferrell may be known for his over-emotional schtick where he’s screaming and yelling, but in Semi-Pro it was overkill. It got to a point where every time Ferrell started his mental-breakdown routine, I would groan and say “oh no, not again!” We’ve seen it before, and it isn’t fresh anymore. When Ferrell was on screen he sucked the life right out of this movie — and I never thought I’d say this about a Will Ferrell performance, but it was the truth.

Ferrell delivered a tired performance. What was manic before was moronic now. What was amusing before was annoying now. The utter unevenness of the second half of the movie put the brakes on what should have been a great retro-themed flick about the old ABA, a league that lots of basketball fans have great affection for. I will say, though, that the bear-wrestling was funny. If they had more bears in the movie, maybe it would have been better.

Before going to see this movie I recalled the days when I watched Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on their old movie-review TV show. Most people remember that show for the great passion these two displayed about the films they saw. I also recall Siskel was an enormous basketball fan who really loved good movies about the sport. He really got behind solid efforts like Hoop Dreams.

I wonder what Siskel’s reaction to Semi-Pro would have been. I suspect he would have come to exactly the same conclusion I’ve come to: Semi-Pro is only semi-good.

Grade: C+

The Upside: This movie effectively captures the look and feel of the late, great ABA.

The Downside: Will Ferrell has been better elsewhere, and you have to suspend disbelief to the hilt when it comes to the inconsistences between the real ABA from 1976 and the one depicted in this movie.

On the Side: If it wasn’t for the ABA, we would not have Eva Longoria Parker sitting in the audience at San Antonio Spurs NBA games. Something to think about.

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