I am sick to death of the clueless, arrogant buffoon that Will Ferrell has made his stock-in-trade, and desperate to see the talented comic do something — anything — else. Ferrell is basically a national treasure, or at least he could be if he harnessed his fearlessness, his singular physicality, and his gift for the ad-libbed non sequitur in service of something with more meat on the bones. Except for the rare occasions when he has been hijacked by a talented filmmaker (Woody Allen for Melinda and Melinda; Marc Forster for Stranger Than Fiction), he’s been on autopilot since Old School, Elf and Anchorman combined to rocket him to the big time.
Semi-Pro is practically the same movie as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Blades of Glory — or maybe its an escalation of those films’ comedic penchants, with their defining characteristics taken to what God willing is a logical conclusion. Ferrell’s character, this time named Jackie Moon, is now so self-absorbed that, no longer content to make mincemeat out of one position of prominence, he is the owner, coach and star player on the Flint (Michigan) Tropics, a struggling American Basketball Association franchise in danger of not surviving the ABA-NBA merger. The movie’s attempts to worm its way into the zeitgeist are even more obvious and invidious than its predecessors’, with Jackie’s opening rendition of “Love Me Sexy” — did I mention he used to also be a novelty pop star? — just begging to make it into MySpace profiles and Facebook status messages.
Beyond Ferrell’s schtick, by now second nature to him and totally predictable to us, Semi-Pro is basically content-free. This time around, the star’s handlers didn’t even have the guts to give him a suitable comic foil — Woody Harrelson, playing a washed up player whom the Tropics acquire in exchange for a washing machine, is a funny guy, but he is relegated to playing the straight man and even has to contend with a weirdly earnest romantic subplot. And with the exception of the washing machine joke, everything remotely funny here seems to have been improvised by Ferrell, which is fair enough but reinforces the impression that these movies are cooked up over a night of drinking and poker followed by a few days of letting the actor loose in front of the cameras.
As with all the installments in this misbegotten series, there’s some amusing stuff here — Ferrell is too talented a performer, and too gratifyingly weird a presence, to ever leave us completely cold. But Semi-Pro, more than any of the previous films, feels like something Ferrell might have coughed up rather than something he, or anyone else, thought or cared about. What entertainment value there is comes from watching him riff (which you can do elsewhere) and from some cute little details (e.g. Jackie hangs out at a nightclub called the Kremlin).
How long can the comic and his friends keep milking this tired, old, wheezing conceit? I guess Semi-Pro, which has nothing but the conceit to offer, will serve as a referendum. Watching Ferrell play Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, Chazz Michael Michaels (the figure skater from Blades of Glory, or don’t you remember) and now Jackie Moon is both tedious and has an opportunity cost. Because surely there are other things he could be doing, projects that are as smart and funny as he obviously is.