by Paul Deines
Profiles in Batshittery is a series where I break down a train-wreck film, one with style and exuberance that fell short artistically and commercially. The type of film that still draws me in when I happen upon it late night on TV. I choose one batshit classic per year, moving back in time as I go.
An unbelievable pool of comedy talent has dominated film and television these last 15 years. Over these two decades, comedy ensembles produced extremely funny products that were also artistically significant. In 2001, alums of Upright Citizens Brigade and the State hatched Wet Hot American Summer, a parody film joyously absurd and endlessly rewatchable. Around this same time, Judd Apatow created Freaks and Geeks, the bittersweet comedy series that introduced America to Seth Rogen, James Franco, Busy Phillips, Jason Segal and Linda Cardellini. Over the next decade, Adam McKay planted his flag with stream-of-conscious comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers. And all the while, Comedy Central served as a farm system, funneling standup luminaries to a large audience and letting them speak freely on the injustices of the Bush era: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Dave Chappelle and so on.
Uniquely, this era of comedic ascendancy wasn’t niches: it was a genuine mainstream cultural movement. The talents mentioned above – and countless others – were auteurs. Still are. Just consider the excitement surrounding the Judd Apatow-Amy Schumer vehicle Train Wreck.
The most dominant force of this comic golden age was Will Ferrell. Coming off an Saturday Night Live tenure that included a pantheon-level president impression – as well memorable supporting turns in Austin Powers and Zoolander – Ferrell began his rise to film stardom with Old School. Playing the Frank the Tank, the extreme manifestation of the overgrown frat boy aesthetic that dominated this era, he proved his ability to riff a scene to its most absurd digression.
That same year he did the equally funny yet totally charming Elf, which has since found its way into a Christmas Story-esque holiday rotation.
But it was 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy that cemented Ferrell as a box-office force. Made on the cheap, Anchorman proved you could toss a group of funny people into a loosely defined plot, and their improv could produce a real movie. Ferrell rolled on from there, starring in several high-grossing and cultishly adored comedies, and finding his way into pictures by Woody Allen and Adam Rapp, as well as an adaptation of a hit Broadway musical.
As the 2000s ended, though, Ferrell foundered with a series of high-profile flops, often adapted from long-cancelled television series. In 2008, though, he starred in a shaggy goof of a sports movie that I believe ranks among his funniest films. That is the subject of this entry in Profiles in Batshittery, Semi-Pro, starring Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, Maura Tierney, and Andre Benjamin.
What it promised …
Semi-Pro looked like a reversion to the mean for Ferrell, after a tepid year that included Curious George and Kicking & Screaming. It looked fun, if not especially original, taking place, as it did, in the seventies (like Anchorman) in the sports world (like Talladega Nights). There’s a definite Frankenstein-ing of previously-successful Ferrell components. More compellingly, Semi-Pro focused on a real life American sports footnote: the short-lived American Basketball Association (with in its brief life launched the careers of Julius Erving and Spencer Haywood) and its 1976 absorption into the NBA. The Flint Tropics, which Ferrell’s impresario Jacki Mood owns, manages, coaches, promotes and plays for – are a fictional franchise, but they compete against real ABA teams like the Kentucky Colonels and the pre-merger Spurs.
I was psyched to see Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin in the supporting cast. Harrelson mostly disappeared from big Hollywood releases after 1999’s Play It to the Bone. In 2006, he returned to prominence with Robert Altman’s final film A Prairie Home Companion, then followed that with a great supporting turn in the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men. Semi-Pro was his first big budget comedy in a decade. As Ed Monnix, an end-of-the-road point guard traded to the Tropics, he was Ferrell’s straight man.
Andre Benjamin, meanwhile, had ridden the stratospheric success of his Atlanta rap duo Outkast to a series of unfortunate Hollywood roles, from the awful Get Shorty sequel Be Cool to the merely dull Outkast musical Idlewild. Playing the showboating Tropics star Coffee Black seemed like a cinch for Benjamin, a showcase for his easy charisma.
So, Semi-Pro looked like a stacked deck, a foolproof combination of raw talent and a giddily absurd premise.
What it delivered …
Audiences reacted to Semi-Pro as just another a dull, disappointing Ferrell vehicle. Which it might have deserved, given that it’s little more than a lovable bums story in the vein of Major League. When the ABA announces it will merge with the NBA, only the top four teams – in terms of record and ticket sales – will continue on in the new league. This means that Jackie Moon, the one-hit-wonder songwriter turned franchise owner, must figure out how to win with a team short on skill and long on volatility.
There is an argument to be made that this picture is a dud. That argument, though, is wrong.
What works and what doesn’t...
When it hues toward the unhinged, Semi-Pro contains some of Ferrell’s best work. He and Woody Harrelson have great chemistry, with Monnix projecting a weariness that can barely tolerate Jackie Moon’s theatrics. In one fantastic scene, Maddox prompts Moon to vomit by punching him in the intestine, leading to a heaving Moon pursuing him around the court before yakking. It’s a lurching, weird ballet:
My favorite bit of Dadaist humor, though, is the totally unconnected poker scene, featuring Tim Meadows in a cameo so arbitrary I wonder whether his character was in the script at all or if Meadows just happened to be on set.
That stuff’s fantastic. I’m not as in love with the narrative that holds it together. The Tropics are lovable losers, content to goof on the court and pick up chicks at the dingy watering hole after, but their rallying to save the team is pretty uninspired. Ferrell concocts ridiculous promotional stunts to boost attendance; Harrelson storms around demanding the team gets serious.
Why waste narrative real estate on a half-hearted power struggle between Monnix and Moon? For that matter, why waste time on any of these characters’ motivations. Coffee Black’s needling of Monnix has potential but never pays off? Neither does a subplot involving Monnix reconnecting with an old flame played by Maura Tierney (though it does give us another wonderfully odious turn by Rob Corddry as her cuckold boyfriend). Or another strand involving the provenance of Jackie Moon’s song “Love Me Sexy.”
And for every great bit of physical comedy, there’s a lazy sequence like Jackie Moon’s third-act granny-style freethrowing. It’s interminable, just interminable.
What’s so batshit about it?
I’ll acknowledge that, to a large extent Semi-Pro is only occasionally funny, and often aggravating. Yet, I still think it’s more than the sum of its parts.
Consider the supporting turns and cameos, which aren’t presented as double-take opportunities like the Anchorman rumble sequences. They’re plenty absurd, but each seems to flesh out more fully the world of Flint, a scrappy city on the verge of total collapse. The film begins and ends with Oscar-nominee Jackie Earl Haley, playing a barely-comprehensible burnout who improbably hits a half-court basket for a cash prize, then commences a feeble protest when Moon reneges on the payment. There’s also Matt Walsh the belligerent Father Pat, referee for all Tropics games, and Jason Sudeikis as a season ticket holder intent on bringing his own nachos.
Most important are Andrew Daly and Will Arnett as Dick and Lou, the Galant and Goofus local sportscasters, whose shtick is one part professionalism, one part super-fandom and one part desperate hometown pride. It’s amusing as hell, in large part because it’s rooted in their need to believe in Flint. Just look at how they storm out of an early game in solidarity with an aggrieved Jackie. Or this fantastic interchange before the final championship game:
Lou: Jackie Moon is Flint's favorite son. And he has done more for this city than any human being who's ever lived on this planet!
Dick: With the possible exception of Henry Ford... Jackie Moon has done a lot for this city, you're right about that.
All this is to say, Semi-Pro is a surprisingly loving portrait of dying American industrial city, with its ramshackle infrastructure, fiscal struggles and reflexive civic pride.
HEADS UP: SEMI-PRO ISN’T EXACTLY THE USUAL SUSPECTS, BUT THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS BELOW. TAKE HEED.
The final passage of this picture is also wonderfully bittersweet, with a touch of Animal House’s pyrrhic victory.
With only one game left in the season, an ABA commissioner (David Koechner) unceremoniously informs the Tropics that, by league decree, they’re not going to the NBA. Bereft, Moon and Monnix decide to play their hearts out for fourth place in the final game. Moon dubs it the Flint Michigan Mega Bowl, and what follows reaches prime-Ferrell levels of ridiculous. At the half, Jackie has a vision of his mother (Patti LaBelle!), who provides him a great revelation. The film posits that this divine message was the origin of the Alley Oop, the first execution of which startles, confuses and arouses everyone in the arena.
Can I recommend it?
Those close to me know I love this movie way out of proportion with its quality. I place it far higher on the Ferrell comedy rankings than any person with a modicum of taste should. Semi-Pro lacks the finesse of Talladega Nights, the glee of Anchorman, the absurdity of Step Brothers or the raunch of Old School. It puttered around in theaters for a few weeks, not quite breaking even, and these days, you can probably catch a chopped-up showing of it on TBS any Saturday afternoon.
Director Kent Alterman – yes, this is my first time mentioning him – has yet to direct another feature.
Ferrell, while still popular, has yet to reclaim the excitement he engendered in the early 2000s. Today, he seems more interested in bringing his comic sensibility to unexpected venues, like Major League Baseball or Lifetime. Andre Benjamin spent the next five years trying to get a Jimi Hendrix biopic made, only to have it largely ignored.
Only Woody Harrelson can claim an unambiguously upward trajectory since Semi-Pro, with an Oscar nomination, a major role in The Hunger Games and a starring role in the most frenzied TV event of last year. I suspect whenever Harrelson leaves the game for good, we’ll look back on his career as one of the best in recent memory. I hope Semi-Pro remains a little gem in his extensive filmography.
See, there’s so much to love about this picture, by which I mean that for all its myriad flaws, it’s still funny as hell. So, yes: watch it. It’s probably on TV right now.
For the next entry of Profiles in Batshittery, I’ll be naming the batshit classic of last year. Shh. It’s a surprise.