Semi Pro

posted March 03, 2008 04:40:36 PM CST | 22 comments

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There’s a perception among both critics and performers alike that the comedy bar has been raised significantly in recent years. From Wedding Crashers and Talladega Nights to Knocked Up and Superbad, from The Office and My Name Is Earl to 30 Rock, film and TV writers and actors seem to be taking more chances, making adult-oriented comedy that doesn’t dumb itself down to cater to the lowest common denominator. And when the game has been elevated, you have to elevate your game if you want to stay on top, and this comedy about a fictional basketball team in the last dying days of the ABA bears a burden of expectation that comes with having Will Ferrell’s name above the title.

The Flint, Michigan Tropics are so hilariously bad, they make the Washington Generals look like the Jordan-era Bulls. The last place team is owned and grossly mismanaged by Jackie Moon (Ferrell), a P.T. Barnum-style huckster who emphasizes publicity stunts over hoops fundamentals and croons his soul hit, “Love Me Sexy,” during halftime. The funny thing is, he’s actually got some impressive talent to work with, from Andre Benjamin as the Dr. J-inspired Clarence Withers to Woody Harrelson as Monix, a former NBA player relegated to the ABA at the tail end of his career. Unfortunately, Moon is too busy leaping over bikini-clad cheerleaders on roller skates and wrestling bears in an effort to get fans’ butts into the seats to notice his team’s mediocrity.

The same could be said of the film itself. First-time director Kent Alterman (former head of East Coast development for Comedy Central) and screenwriter Scot Armstrong (who co-wrote Road Trip, Starsky & Hutch and Old School) give Ferrell plenty of room to shine, and his typical over-the-top antics provide quite a few laughs. But too often they come at the expense of character development, and of his equally talented supporting players. Though former Arrested Development star Will Arnett gets some (obviously improvised) laughs as the team’s chain-smoking, hard-drinking play-by-play announcer, seriously funny dudes such as Andy Richter, David Koechner, Rob Corddry, Tim Meadows and Matt Walsh are all woefully underutilized. Perhaps the film’s biggest surprise is Woody Harrelson: Better known in recent years for dramas such as No Country For Old Men, the former Cheers star’s intensity reminds us how crucially funny a great straight man can be. No wonder he gets second billing.

As someone who’s old enough to remember the ABA– the sky-high afros and funky fashions; the 3-point shots and gravity-defying moves to the basket; that awesome red, white and blue ball– I appreciate the filmmakers’ obvious fondness for the era. There is a great ABA film waiting to be made somewhere, but this, unfortunately is not it. And that’s primarily because, when they should have gone for a Julius Erving-style slam dunk, the filmmakers went for the easy layup.

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