Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell) is a disco superstar, master promoter, and owner of the Flint, Michigan Tropics, a struggling ABA basketball team eager to make 1976 their year for success. Finding out only the top four teams in the league will be considered for an upcoming merger with the NBA, Jackie recruits aging superstar Monix (Woody Harrelson) to join the team and help with the season. Under pressure to win games and fill the seats, Jackie goes to outrageous lengths to keep his team alive when it seems everyone couldn't care less about the future of the ABA.
Listen, Will Ferrell could be funny in his sleep, but his recent output of feature films has reeked of desperation, eroding his once pungent buoyancy. "Semi-Pro" is such an erratic production, tap-dancing all over the place in search of chuckles, and soft chortles are pretty much all you get from Scot Armstrong's screenplay. There are few belly-laughs to be mined from the material, and that is a crime.
Longtime comedy producer Kent Alterman makes his directorial debut with "Semi-Pro" and his inexperience is about as subtle as a supernova. Imagine "Anchorman" and "Tin Cup" colliding on a playground of ABA jokes and you'd have something approaching the tone of "Semi-Pro." The film is an untamed hodgepodge of improvisational moments from Ferrell and his gang of comics (Andy Richter, Will Arnett, David Koechner, and Rob Corddry also appear) who wander around trying to pinpoint the laugh, but never quite do. All Alterman can do is turn his camera on, praying the footage will cut together. I hate to break it to this guy, but "Semi-Pro" is barely a movie.
Laughs come from the mouth of Ferrell, who, as his did in "Blades," takes off on his own spaceship of thought and tangents. Watching Jackie freak out over the continual failure of his team is entertaining footage, and it's often enough to help digest the picture. However, when Ferrell goes for the wilder ideas, such as Jackie and his friends engaging in a little gunplay during a poker game, the film deflates right in front of your eyes. When Will Ferrell has to fight like a demon to make a scene funny, then you know the script is garbage.
Further proof of this comes with the character of Monix, who has been branded the "heart" of the feature. Harrelson is amiable enough, but what little momentum there is in "Semi-Pro" is killed by trying to infuse this funhouse with a soul. Either you have Jackie wrestling a grizzly bear or Monix making googly eyes with an old flame (a wasted Maura Tierney). Trying to blend both in the same picture leaves the film a tennis match of tones that starts to strain the neck the more Alterman refuses to scale it back.
"Semi-Pro" has some fine moments, but there's nothing here that catches fire. Pointing out 70's staples like Pong and fondue are smile-worthy, but forced. The ABA miracle moments, such as the discovery of the alley oop, also get the blood pumping, but there's little kinetic energy behind it. Perhaps Ferrell should stick to directors who understand his silly DNA, instead of placing his future in the hands of the Kent Altermans of the world, who don't have the experience or the courage to pick a tone and charge full steam ahead.