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.
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.