Whether he gets naked and shows his flabby parts or not, Will Ferrell makes me laugh. And he does it in hit movies (Elf, Old School, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory), horrible movies (The Producers, Bewitched, Kicking and Screaming) and movies where directors edge him into something deeper (Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction). Hell, Ferrell is funny when he just drops into a movie for a few scenes (Zoolander, Starskynd Hutch, Wedding Crashers). Now Ferrell is getting hammered for doing the same shtick over and over again: Semi-Pro is his fourth sports comedy.
The real problem with Semi-Pro, about a raggedy-ass ABA hoops team dying from dumbass incompetence and fan neglect in 1976, is that it's only semi-funny. But even when the script, by Scott Armstrong, shoots air balls, Ferrell is a slam-dunk. In a white afro and short-shorts, he kicks it Seventies old-school as Jackie Moon, the owner, coach and star player of a Michigan team called the Flint Tropics. There's nothing legit about Jackie. He bought the Tropics with the loot from a lewd disco song, "Love Me Sexy," that made him a one-hit wonder.
Semi-Pro has an R rating that liberates Ferrell from being family-friendly, as in a foul-mouthed poker game that ends in a Russian-roulette stunt out of The Deer Hunter. The plot heats up when the ABA, with its three-point shots, red-white-and-blue balls and crazy promotional tactics (you haven't lived till you see Ferrell rollerskate over eight spread-eagled "ball" girls), merges with the NBA and threatens to put the Tropics on a fast track to nowhere. Jackie then stages even more desperate stunts, like wrestling a bear named Dewey.
So far, so Ferrell. The nutso ABA, which began in 1967 and got flushed in 1976 when business took the mad fun out of the game, brings out a genuine affection in Ferrell, who revels in the period details, as does Kent Alterman, debuting as a director after producing the brilliant likes of A History of Violence and Little Children. But there's another movie inside this farce struggling to get out. It involves Monix (Woody Harrelson), a former bench warmer for the Boston Celtics, hired by Jackie to whip the Tropics into shape, especially Clarence "Coffee" Black (a terrific André Benjamin). Harrelson looks ready to rip, but the movie keeps inching his character into deeper waters that crowd out the laughs. His wig gives him an unfortunate resemblance to his No Country for Old Men co-star Javier Bardem in psycho mode. And Monix's romance with his ex (Maura Tierney) is flat, except in the scenes with Rob Corddry as her husband, a hoops fan who worships Monix to the point of rooting for his wife to fuck him as longs hubby can watch.
Ferrell doesn't do all the heavy comic lifting. Jackie Earle Haley as a stoner fan, Andy Richter as a locker-room attendant and especially Andrew Daly as the team's aching-to-be-hip announcer had me at the first giggle. But there's only one star in this show. Critics will score Semi-Pro on its missed shots. My guess is that audiences will do what they always do with Ferrell: remember when he killed them laughing.