Sports broadcaster Bob Costas loves to tell a story about Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, the American Basketball Association’s 1975 Rookie of the Year, in which the flamboyant power forward adamantly refused to board an 7:52 AM flight from Louisville to St. Louis because it arrived at 7:49 AM. When Costas asked him why he wouldn’t fly, a dead-serious Barnes confided, “I ain’t gettin’ in no time machine.” So he rented a car and drove home.
Terry Pluto’s wonderful history of the ABA, Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, is full of anecdotes like this, and that’s a huge problem for Semi-Pro. Why give this era the Will Ferrell/Anchorman treatment when the truth is so outlandishly entertaining in its own right? Stock bits of business like wrestling a bear seem quaint when compared to the antics of guys like Barnes; meanwhile, the level of basketball was so inspiring (thanks to the high-flying likes of Julius “Dr. J” Ervin and Connie Hawkins) that it’s a shame to settle for poorly staged recreations with guys who’d get blown out by the worst team in the WNBA. Even if Semi-Pro attained Anchorman-esque heights of inspired lunacy, it’d still be a missed opportunity.
And that’s Semi-Pro‘s other huge problem: Ferrell’s working without Adam McKay, his writing and directing co-conspirator on Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Though Ferrell’s not necessarily adrift sans McKay’s influence, it’s strange that he’d participate in a movie that’s so blatantly a knockoff of one of their earlier triumphs. He’s voluntarily diluting his own appeal. Watching Ferrell gamely muscle his way through a succession of gags that wouldn’t even be worth the waste of an index card for McKay is painful; the awkwardness is akin to, say, Owen Wilson starring in a Jared Hess movie. The label may say Cristal, but it tastes like Cooks.
Director Kent Alterman and screenwriter Scot Armstrong are obviously aware of the Ron Burgundy similarities, so they’ve conceived Jackie Moon as a non-smoking boozehound with an insatiable sexual appetite (meanwhile, Will Arnett does a Ron Burgundy impersonation on the sideline as the unstable, gun-toting Lou Redwood). This doesn’t make Moon any less of a caricature. As the publicity stunt obsessed owner/player/manager of the Flint Tropics, Moon subjects himself to all manner of humiliation just to keep the bleachers half-full of paying customers. Existing is more important to Moon than competing; win or lose, he lives for the camaraderie of his teammates and the amusement of the crowd. This is why he spends more time choreographing dance numbers than running his players through offensive and defensive drills.
But none of these stunts can match the inspired lunacy of real-life disasters like “Ten Cent Beer Night” or “Disco Demolition Night”. And nothing any of Moon’s misfit Tropics do on or off the court can match the exploits of guys like Marvin Barnes and John Brisker. The best bits – like Woody Harrelson’s Ed Monix being traded to the Tropics for the team’s washing machine – are lifted in part from Pluto’s book, but their comedic impact is sabotaged by the film’s broad tone. The stories in Loose Balls were hilarious because they really happened.
Alterman and Armstrong are also aiming for the profane grace of Slap Shot, which, again, is a huge mistake since there’s absolutely no verisimilitude. And what they can’t use from George Roy Hill’s hockey classic, they steal from Bull Durham and Major League. Monix’s entire arc – he’s a past-his-prime point guard who must contend with the pain of living in the same town as his ex-wife (Maura Tierny) – is lifted directly from Major League. The only original spin is that his wife’s new flame (Rob Corddry) is his number one fan – a complication that pays off in the film’s most uproariously funny scene. Meanwhile, Monix’s conflict with the team’s precocious young star, “Black Coffee” (Andre Benjamin), is beat-for-beat Crash Davis/”Nuke” LaLoosh; there’s even an altercation on the team bus spurred on by Monix’s recollections of playing in the NBA.
Alterman occasionally nears genuine sincerity with Monix’s character, and Harrelson plays the washed-up pro so convincingly that you wish they would’ve backed away from the non sequitur-laden humor. But with Ferrell in the lead, they seem duty-bound to bellow for the cheap seats. Of course, this doesn’t work either because Ferrell’s (and McKay’s) humor is, at its best, rather brilliant in its stupidity. For most of its running time, Semi-Pro just regurgitates the greatest hits of other people’s work while timidly refusing to be its own thing. The only upside to its artistic failure is that it might be a big enough commercial success to convince Hollywood to tell the real, unvarnished ABA story. Give audiences a taste of Marvin Barnes, and they’ll forget all about the fraud of Jackie Moon.