Judge Gordon Sullivan got sweaty while he wrote this review.
Our review of Semi-Pro: Two-Disc Unrated Edition, published June 3rd, 2008, is also available.
The Greatest 'Fro on Earth
Will Ferrell returns to the arena for his second sports spoof in a row. Although this "Let's Get Sweaty" edition does a fine job giving us the film, Semi-Pro ultimately seems more "semi" than "pro."
Facts of the Case
Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell, Old School) is the owner/promoter/player for the Flint Tropics, a basketball team which is part of the American Basketball Association. It's 1976, and the NBA wants to absorb four teams from the ABA, and Jackie convinces the other owners that it should be the top four teams at the end of the season. Too bad his Flint Tropics are at the bottom of the league. To help bring them back, he enlists former NBA star Monix (Woody Harrelson, Natural Born Killers) to help whip the ragtag team into shape.
On the page, Semi-Pro should be a winner. Throw every underdog cliché into a blender, add some jabs at '70s culture, and you've got a surefire hit on your hands, right? If only that were the case here. Semi-Pro works best as an "underdogs make good" sort of film, where we watch the team bond and go through the usual training montages and emotional upsets. It's nothing new, but with actors like André Benjamin and (especially) Woody Harrelson on board, it stays remarkably fresh. The problem is that this story is only about 60 percent of the film. The rest is scenes that are trying to be funny because, after all, this is a comedy. The hitch in the plan with Semi-Pro is that they forgot to write a funny script. Instead, they rely on generally funny setups (ha ha, what if a black guy called a white guy "jive turkey" in the '70s, wouldn't that be hilarious?) and improvised around them. However, as anyone who's seen more than two episodes of Saturday Night Live can attest to, improv can easily fall flat. That's the case with most of the "funny" scenes here: they just don't work.
The other problem is that a comedy lives and dies with the comedian, and, in Semi-Pro, Will Ferrell simply isn't up to the task. He has a couple of good moments, but for the most part his performance just doesn't work. He's trying so hard it's painful to watch, and that hurts the film. A comedian willing to take the role in a more serious direction (I'm especially thinking of John C. Reilly) could have sold both the underdog story and the film's outlandish comedy. Instead, we're stuck with 90 minutes of Will Ferrell floundering for a laugh by doing things like eating pancakes in a dumpster.
It's not all bad, however. As I mentioned, Harrelson and Benjamin do a great job anchoring the dramatic moments. I got the most laughs from the team's color commentators (played by Andrew Daly and Will Arnett). I don't know if it's because their lines and characters were better written or they just had more improv opportunities, but their interactions are the highlight of the movie for me.
I might not be a fan of the film, but New Line didn't skimp when it came to this two-disc "Let's Get Sweaty" edition of the film. This is the kind of Blu-ray transfer that lets you see every hair in Ferrell's 'fro, and makes some of the shots of his crotch almost painfully detailed. Overall, colors are bright, detail is high, and black levels are consistent. The audio does a great job with the classic '70s songs and the film's dialogue.
In a rare twist, I enjoyed Semi-Pro's special features much more than I enjoyed the movie. The lone exception to my enjoyment is the extended cut found on the first disc, which only adds 7 minutes of unnecessary scenes, including Jackie's wife and some nudity. It totally feels like they cut this stuff just so they could add it back for an "unrated" DVD rather than to secure an initial R rating. However, the second disc houses the interesting extras. We get alternate introductions to Dick Pepperfield and Monix, both of which would have made the film stronger. I didn't find the improv (aside from those between Daly and Arnett) very interesting, but the material here is at least as strong as the stuff that made it into the film, so I didn't feel like I was losing anything by watching them. We also get numerous featurettes on Semi-Pro's background, including several features on the historical ABA which I found really fascinating. They combined vintage footage with contemporary interviews with some of the stars of the league. I don't know if they saw the final product, but they seem pretty happy with Semi-Pro. There's also a slightly above average making-of documentary, including a bunch of fun stuff about the basketball training camp the actors had to go through. Speaking of basketball, there's an "Agility Trainer" included, which is basically one-sided Pong. I'm not a huge fan of games on my Blu-ray discs, but this one wasn't a frustrating mess, so give it at least one shot if you've got the disc. Finally, we get promotional material, including trailers and some promotional footage of Jackie Moon being interview by Dick Pepperfield.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're a fan of Will Ferrell's unique talents, then you'll probably want to at least give this film a try. I'm not intimately familiar with his canon, but from what I've seen, all the usual man-child tricks seem to be on display here, including bizarre bodily humor, stupidity, and an amazing lack of awareness about the world around him.
Fans of Will Ferrell will likely find something to appreciate in Semi-Pro. For others, if the premise grabs you, give the disc a rental before jumping into this "Let's Get Sweaty" edition. But, whether renting or buying, this Blu-ray is a great way to see the film.
Semi-Pro is guilty, and that ain't no jive, turkey.
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