Pop Culture

‘Semi-Pro’ a decidedly minor-league effort

In 1990, a barely-seen comedy called “The Spirit of ’76” told the story of time-travelers from the future who accidentally wind up in 1976 and find themselves coping with leisure suits, disco, Qiana and smiley faces. The subsequent 18 years has been packed with all manner of media — from the silly “Anchorman” to the clever mini-series “Tales of the City” and its sequels to the serious “Boogie Nights” — that have milked laughs from platform shoes, EST, patchwork denim, afros and KC and the Sunshine Band.

The joke has been getting more and more strained with each passing year, but with “Semi-Pro,” we can officially stick a fork in it. No more can filmmakers get instant laughs with Pong, ascots, eight-tracks and lava lamps. It’s just no longer funny. And for 95 percent of its running time, neither is “Semi-Pro.”

Will Ferrell, who has run his “lanky, inappropriate egotist excels at a sport” routine perilously close to the ground, stars as singer Jackie Moon, who parlays his only chart hit, “Love Me Sexy,” into the ownership of the Flint Tropics, a Michigan-based team in basketball’s old ABA. As the film begins, the NBA is about to absorb the ABA — but only its top four teams. Even though those teams have already been selected, the ever-hopeful Jackie (who’s also the Tropics’ coach and power forward) convinces the league commissioner to let the league’s teams compete for the top four slots.

To shake things up, Jackie trades the team’s washing machine for past-his-prime player Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), whose main claim to fame is riding the bench during the Knicks’ championship season. Ed accepted the deal mainly to get close to ex-girlfriend Lynn (the sorely underutilized Maura Tierney) but finds himself compelled to help the Tropics make it to the ABA Final Four, and thus the NBA as well.

There are, sadly, two movies in “Semi-Pro,” and neither one of them is very good. One is the Ferrell vehicle we’ve seen a million times, but it was much funnier when it was called “Talladega Nights” or even “Blades of Glory.” Ferrell’s a brilliant performer — and he’s making the effort to shake his career up with smarter films like “Stranger than Fiction” and “Elf” — but he’s running a real risk of becoming the new Ben Stiller by making the same damn movie over and over again.

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    John Estes / Lionsgate

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    Will Ferrell’s wonderful world

    The actor’s crazy characters rule small screens and large, from “Saturday Night Live” to “Land of the Lost.”

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    Horsing around

    Will Ferrell tackles the open range and the Spanish language as a Mexican ranch heir in 2012's "Casa de Mi Padre."

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    All dressed up

    Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis goof around in a very serious way while presenting an award at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26, 2012, in Los Angeles. "As serious musicians, it is our pleasure to step out from our day jobs for a moment to present the Academy Award for best original song," Ferrell deadpans.

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    Needs more cowbell

    Ferrell reigns as the King of Bacchus at the 2012 Krewe of Bacchus Parade on Feb. 19, 2012, in New Orleans. In addition to the traditional beads and coins, the actor also adds a veyr Ferrell-like touch by tossing mini cowbells.

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    On the mic

    Tacking another line on to his sports resume, Will Ferrell announces the starting lineups at the New Orleans Hornets/Chicago Bulls basketball game in New Orleans on Feb. 8, 2012, and poked fun at nearly all the players: "At guard, No. 1, his favorite movie is 'The Notebook' -- Derrick Rose!' he shouts.

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    Daddy time

    Will Ferrell spends time with son Mattias at the L.A. Lakers/Denver Nuggets basketball game on April 3, 2011.

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    Getting a big head

    Will Ferrell voices the title character in 2010's "Megamind," playing a brainy alien who serves as a criminal mastermind behind evil doings in fictional Metro City.

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    Dynamic duo

    Will Ferrell, right, stars with Mark Wahlberg in the 2010 comedy, "The Other Guys." The two play police detectives who look up to another cop duo, played by Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock.

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    In prehistoric times

    Ferrell stars with Danny McBride and Anna Friel in the 2008 big-screen adaptation of the 1970s TV show, "Land of the Lost." Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, who, along with his team, gets sucked into an alternative prehistoric universe where dinosaurs reign and evil, but slow-moving Sleestaks are the biggest threat.

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    'Step-Brothers'

    Ferrell teams up again with "Talladega Nights" co-star John C. Reilly, in "Step Brothers." Ferrell plays Brennan Huff, a sporadically employed 39-year-old who lives with his mother. Reilly plays Dale Doback, a terminally unemployed 40-year-old who lives with his father. When their respective parents marry and move in together, Brennan and Dale are forced to live with each other as step brothers.

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    'Semi-Pro'

    Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, the owner-coach-player of the American Basketball Association's Flint Michigan Tropics in the 2007 comedy "Semi-Pro."

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    Iceman

    Will Ferrell (in orange jumpsuit) plays Chazz Michael Michaels, a former singles figure skater who is forced to pair up with Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) in order to get back on the ice in 2007's "Blades of Glory."

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    Speed racer

    Ferrell stars as NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in 2006's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." At one point, when he believes he's on fire, Ricky Bobby screams, "Help me, Jesus! Help me, Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft to get the fire off me!"

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    Breaking into song

    In the 2004 movie version of the musical version of "The Producers," Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane reprise their Broadway roles of Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock, while Ferrell joins the fun as wacky Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. Franz tells the boys, "I had nothing to do with the war! I didn't even know there was a war on. We lived in the back, right across from Switzerland. All we heard was yodelling... yoodle le he hoo."

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    Funeral crasher

    In Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's 2004 film "Wedding Crashers," Farrell plays Chaz, a man who manages to top Wilson and Vaughn's method of finding single women at weddings, by crashing funerals. "Grief is nature's most powerful aphrodisiac," he tells Wilson.

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    Time to twitch your nose, Sam

    Ferrell starred as Darrin Stephens with Nicole Kidman as his witch wife, Samantha, in the 2005 remake of the TV hit "Bewitched."

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    You stay classy, San Diego

    In 2004's "Anchorman," Ferrell stars as Ron Burgundy, the top-rated anchorman in San Diego in the '70s. When feminism marches into the newsroom in the form of ambitious newswoman Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) it's more than a battle between two perfectly coiffed anchor-persons ... it's war.

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    Show me your belly button

    Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller starred in the 2004 big-screen version of "Starsky & Hutch," but Ferrell managed to steal the show as Big Earl, a convict who's attracted to Hutch. When Big Earl convinces Hutch to show him his belly button, he marvels, saying, "It's like a little bowl of oatmeal with a hole in it. I got one too. I just got a little more brown sugar on mine."

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    Santa's helper

    Ferrell stars as Buddy, a full-grown man who was taken in by Santa's elves in 2003's "Elf." When he's sent off to have a normal life in the big city, he's astounded by the differences between the real world and Santa's village. When he sees a department store Santa, he tells him, "You sit on a throne of lies."

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    Frank the Tank

    Ferrell stars as one of three former college buddies (the others are Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn), now in their 30s, who start their own fraternity in 2003's "Old School." During a house party, a fellow partier asks him what he's going to do the next day, to which Ferrell replies: "Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we're going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath, & Beyond."

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    'What is your favorite sound?'

    Ferrell as effusive host James Lipton of "Inside The Actors' Studio" with guest Billy Bob Thornton as himself on "SNL." The real James Lipton was so taken with Ferrell's impression that he had Ferrell (as Lipton) interview him on his own show.

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    It's about 'strategery'

    Ferrell took on President George W. Bush with a searing impression on "SNL" that emphasized the president's tendency toward malapropisms.

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    Fashion plate

    In 2000's "Zoolander" Ferrell plays Mogatu, a fashion designer who creates the Derelicte line. He explains his line this way, "It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique."

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    More cowbell!

    This "Saturday Night Live" skit is a "rare tape" of Blue Oyster Cult recording their classic "Don't Fear the Reaper" with an added dose of cowbell. Band members are played by Chris Kattan, Jimmy Fallon and Chris Parnell, while Ferrell plays the enthusiastic cowbell expert.

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    What is love?

    Ferrell and Chris Kattan starred in 1998's "Night at the Roxbury," a film based on the "Saturday Night Live" skit about two annoying brothers who constantly bob their heads in unison to the Haddaway song, "What Is Love?" Roger Ebert wrote of the film, "It is incompetent, stupid, and horrible beyond belief."

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    Not quite ready for prime time

    Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer played quirky singers and music teachers Marty Culp and Bobbi Mohan-Culp in a recurring skit on "Saturday Night Live."

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The other film trapped inside “Semi-Pro” is a watered-down version of the classic “Slap Shot,” which brilliantly captured the squalor and half-crushed dreams of minor league athletes stuck in decaying towns. And while “Semi-Pro” has some promisingly oddball characters — Rob Corddry’s superfan, Will Arnett and Andrew Daly’s nitwit sports commentators — it’s hard to balance these stabs at realism with the cartoony jokiness that Ferrell’s character has established for the film.

It’s one thing to sacrifice a compelling story in the service of a barrage of jokes. But it’s something else to try to bring characters to life when they’re at the service of the gags. And when those gags are consistently unfunny, there’s no reason to be in the theater at all. Put “Semi-Pro” in TiVo and check out the random amusing bits involving a wrestling bear and a surprise appearance by Jackie’s mom; otherwise, send this movie to the showers.

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