Will Ferrell has arrived in that rarified dimension of comedy that Arnold Schwarzenegger reached in action flicks 20 years ago, in which the titles of his films are mere filler below the star’s name. He’s just “Will Ferrell in” a racing movie (“Talladega Nights”) or a figure-skating movie (“Blades of Glory”). The new “Semi-Pro” is Will Ferrell in a basketball movie, and while it’s packed with the usual Ferrell fare — a free-throw line’s view of Ferrell in ’70s-era short shorts is a real eye-burner — he at least turns in a performance that doesn’t beg for him to be taken out back and slapped.
Ferrell is Jackie Moon, an egotistical yet sincere soul singer who parlayed the earnings from his No. 1 hit “Love Me Sexy” into ownership of the Flint Tropics, a (made-up) American Basketball Association team. Despite pneumatic cheerleaders, free corn dog promotions and an owner who can pull down 30 rebounds starting at power forward drunk (somewhere, Mark Cuban sighs dreamily), the team is in last place and on the brink of bankruptcy.
The story picks up in the middle of the 1976 season, when the National Basketball Association merged with the ABA; in this version of events, Moon proposes that the four teams to make the jump to the NBA be the best four in the league. Thus granted a shot at joining the richer NBA, he trades the team’s washing machine to get weathered ex-Celtics benchwarmer Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), the only real basketball player of the bunch, who clashes with the only real athlete of the lot, Clarence Coffee Black, portrayed by a lavishly Afro’d André Benjamin, who very much fits the part so long as he doesn’t look down at the ball while he dribbles it.
Critical to the rest of the movie’s surprising success is its R rating, allowing the script to rescue itself with profanity and vice whenever it sags toward sports-movie cliche. For instance, first-time director Kent Alterman pulls off an unexpectedly tense version of a Russian roulette game at a poker table — sort of a cross between the denouement of “The Deer Hunter” and the gas-fight scene in “Zoolander.” That scene reaches its only sensible punchline, as does a later cage match between Moon and a “killer bear” meant to goose attendance. The bear breaks free in the full arena, as any comedic bear must. Still, Moon screaming to the panicked audience — “There will be no refunds! Your refund will be escaping this death trap with your life!” — tickles a little.
Likewise, you pretty much know where the Tropics are headed when they set out to capture fourth place, but the ride is still gratifyingly silly. Moon is the sort of Bill Veeck-style promoter who used to thrive in sports before cable TV turned pro games into homogenized yogurt. The Tropics’ radio broadcasters swill scotch and chain-smoke courtside; in a brawl, Monix tears into an opposing player with a series of sharp jabs to the kidneys; and the arrival of the alley-oop qualifies as a veritable deus ex machina. Just stupid enough to make up for being so obnoxious, and vice-versa, “Semi-Pro” at least has the sense to milk a dead basketball league for all the yuks it was worth.
— Sam Eifling