The year 1976 may have been the highpoint of Disco but it marked the end of the ABA. No not ABBA but the old American Basketball Association. For you non sports fans, the money and fan strapped league offered superstars like Dr. J (Julius Erving) but might have been better known for its crazy promotions. Those promotions make up the core of Will Ferrell’s newest sports vehicle Semi Pro.
Living in the shadows of the NBA the fledgling ABA, in danger of folding, announces that the four top teams will merge with the established NBA. Unfortunately, disco star turned owner (as well as head coach, promoter, and starting power forward) Jackie Moon’s (Will Ferrell) franchise, the Flint Michigan Tropics, sits at the bottom of the league standings. Wanting to make it to the big time NBA, Moon pulls out all the stops to turn his franchise around not only in terms of winning but promotions to bring in more fans. Moon trades for former NBA benchwarmer Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) and creates a series of crazy events (bear wrestling, roller-skate cheerleader jumping) all in a glorious attempt to finish in 4th place.
The film, like the ABA, struggles to find an identity. Unlike, other winning sports comedies like Major League or Caddyshack, the film lacks the sense of unity. Coaches always talk about chemistry. Semi-pro only comes off as semi-funny because it lacks that cohesiveness. And like an unbalanced lab experiment, some of the concoctions blow up while others fizzle out. Director Kent Alterman in his debut and writer Scott Armstrong, who penned the funny Old School seem to have taken too many time-outs in creating what seems like an extended Saturday Night Live skit.
Like a team that goes down in defeat, some of the blame must fall on the shoulders of the power forward. Maybe Ferrell should switch careers and become an athlete? He has an obsession playing obnoxious sports heroes. He’s making the rounds by playing a sports hero in every sport with Talladega Nights (auto racing), Blades of Glory (ice skating) and now basketball. But top tier athletes adapt and change their game, Ferrell continues to play the same character only in different settings. The guy’s talented enough to play in the big leagues but if he continues this pattern then maybe he’ll end up on cable TV, exactly where this film should end up as well.