Will Ferrell’s Semi-Pro is half bad — his half

Will Ferrell sports movies Directed by Kent Alterman. Written by Scot Armstrong. Starring Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, Maura Tierney, Andrew Daly, Jackie Earle Haley, and Andy Richter. 90 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Now you know what it would look like if Ricky Bobby balled.
Now you know what it would look like if Ricky Bobby balled.

Semi-Pro is much better than Blades of Glory, which wasn't nearly as good as Talladega Nights, which was a little better than Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was almost as funny as Old School, which was better than everything else Will Ferrell had done up to that point — except maybe Dick, which nobody saw and even fewer remember. Apparently this is what it's come to with Ferrell: grading his movies in various shades of blah as each one blends into the next, until they're all one giant gray blob of feh.

Yes, this might sell short the semi-funny Semi-Pro — essentially Major League clad in 1970s short-shorts, topped with a few 'fros for fun. Still, if you've seen one Will Ferrell sports comedy, you're good. It's just too bad you couldn't have started with this one.

Semi-Pro is hardly a movie anyway; it's more like a series of Will Ferrell sketches, occasionally interrupted by a decent sports-redemption comedy starring Woody Harrelson as former Boston Celtics benchwarmer Eddie Monix, who's come crashing back down to the lesser ABA, where he meets the woman he screwed over and left behind.

Monix is the archetypal sports-movie hero, a hobbled vet in need of the Last Big Win before he hangs it up — Crash Davis in a tight tank top, Jake Taylor in alarmingly short shorts; take your pick. But Harrelson plays him perfectly, looking left while shooting right — meaning that just when you think he's about to go cheap and broad, he feints with ease toward the thoughtful and subtle. This guy's no schmuck — he's a terrific character in a nifty sports movie about the final season of the American Basketball Association's existence, before four of its teams were absorbed by the NBA.

Another terrific character is André Benjamin's Clarence "Coffee" Black, the hot-shit centerpiece of the Flint Tropics, one of the teams about to be adios'd out of the ABA. The OutKast frontman doesn't stoop to the clichés, refusing to play Coffee's bluster for cheap giggles; he's got real soul. Actually, the movie's stocked with terrific, fleshed-out characters: former MADtv cast member Andrew Daly's play-by-play man Dick Pepperfield, Jackie Earle Haley's stoned-outta-his-gourd fan Dukes, Andy Richter's man-boy locker-room attendant Bobby Dee, and Matt Walsh's foul-mouthed ref Father Pat. There's not a single unsurprising or unlikable character among the bunch.

Except for Ferrell's Jackie Moon. Because no matter how funny his sole hit single is ("Love Me Sexy," played a few too many times) and no matter his proclivity for profanity (this has got to be the cursingest Will Ferrell movie, which counts for something), it's just a casual walk in petrified footsteps. Ferrell's once more playing some nutty dude in a sports-movie parody that's totally enjoyable while you're watching it, but also insanely forgettable. At this point, Ferrell is almost in the way of these movies, the same way his pal Ben Stiller is when playing some dim nebbish, which is at least once a year. The movie's better, in other words, when Ferrell's on the bench.

You've seen this act before: He'll speak really low for a really long time, then throw raging tantrums, then get the gang back together for one last Defining Moment, all while spawning a catchphrase or two. It's science. And at least Ferrell has it down to one. But in the end, it's comedy comfort food, something powdered poured from a box.

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