Very much in the tradition of "Slap Shot," George Roy Hill's raucously funny and foul-mouthed 1977 laffer about the misadventures of a minor-league hockey team, "Semi-Pro" scores big laughs with the rowdy play-by-play of hard-luck hoopsters struggling for professional survival.
Very much in the tradition of “Slap Shot,” George Roy Hill’s raucously funny and foul-mouthed 1977 laffer about the misadventures of a minor-league hockey team, “Semi-Pro” scores big laughs with the rowdy play-by-play of hard-luck hoopsters struggling for professional survival. For some auds, Will Ferrell doing a full-court press in a white-guy afro alone will be worth the price of admission. But the New Line release also offers most valuable playing by a first-rate supporting cast, and enough funny business to ensure enduring playoffs on homevid and cable after a profitable theatrical run.
Ferrell delivers an amusing spin on his trademark screen persona (a semi-delusional doofus with a misguided sense of self-worth) as Jackie Moon, a one-hit-wonder disco crooner whose single, singular success enabled him to purchase an American Basketball Assn. team — the Tropics of Flint, Mich. — and install himself as coach, power forward and chief promoter.
Unfortunately, the team is one of the worst in its upstart league. Even more unfortunately, it’s 1976, and the league itself is about to be history: The ABA is set to merge with the longer-established NBA, which plans to disband all but the top four ABA teams.
Desperate to keep his hoop dreams alive, Jackie tries to rally the Tropics by hiring Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), a fading NBA vet who’s very eager to prove he’s more than a mere benchwarmer — and very, very eager to reunite with former sweetheart Lynn (Maura Tierney), who’s inconveniently, but not very happily, married.
While Jackie tries to boost game attendance by any means necessary — a promotional stunt involving a not-so-trained bear becomes a hilarious running gag — Ed struggles to transform the Tropics into contenders. Trouble is, the team has only one truly talented player — Clarence “Downtown” Withers (a well-cast Andre Benjamin) — and even he isn’t ready to raise the level of his game until … well, until the filmmakers decide it’s time for him to do so.
Harrelson (returning to roundball action for the first time since “White Men Can’t Jump”) and Tierney play for keeps even while playing for laughs, so there’s an unexpectedly affecting dramatic weight to the relationship between their characters. But none of that ever gets in the way of what “Semi-Pro” is really all about.
By turns riotously silly and casually clever, with the occasional outburst of inspired lunacy, pic benefits from perfect-pitch comic turns by Will Arnett and Andrew Daly as the Tropics’ color commentators, Andy Richter as Jackie’s loyal team manager, and Jackie Earl Haley as an easily befuddled stoner who scores nothing but net.
Working from a predictable but more-than-serviceable script by Scot Armstrong (“Old School”), first-time feature helmer Kent Alterman, a former New Line development exec, doesn’t try anything too flashy or frenetic. (A sportswriter might say he plays within himself.) At the same time, he vividly evokes a strong sense of mid-’70s ambience in ways that go beyond simply choosing the right pop tunes on the soundtrack.
Indeed, with an immeasurable assist from lenser Shane Hurlbut, costume designer Susan Matheson and production designer Clayton Hartley, Alterman has made a set-in-the-’70s pic that actually looks, sounds and feels like something preserved in a time capsule from the polyester era. That’s meant as a compliment.