Perhaps the feeblest entry in the Will Ferrell Sports Comedy canon, Semi-Pro details the efforts of Flint Tropics player, coach, and owner Jackie Moon to secure a spot for his amateurish basketball franchise in the forthcoming league merger with the NBA. What Kent Alterman’s directorial debut more readily illustrates, however, is screenwriters’ continuing inability to tailor material to Ferrell’s strengths. The lesson apparently imparted by the Adam McKay-helmed Anchorman and Talladega Nights is that the comedian is best when chewing scenery by indulging in Dadaist absurdity via some bizarre dimbulb persona prone to spewing imaginative non sequiturs and erupting in uncoordinated fits of rage. Here, his Jackie Moon is an afro’d idiot spaz who knows nothing about roundball but plenty about inane promotional stunts (roller-skating leaps over cheerleaders, wrestling a bear). Yet as with the similarly brutal Blades of Glory, Ferrell’s shtick is relied upon to single-handedly carry the film, meaning that Semi-Pro quickly devolves into a series of scenes involving Moon freaking out while others quietly stand around watching him.
Surrounding such desperate-to-be-outlandish antics is a sub-Major League side story about washed-up player Monix (Woody Harrelson) and his relationship with a former flame (Maura Tierney) and Tropics showboater Coffee Black (André Benjamin), a thread that interjects some ill-fitting dramatic flavor to the otherwise aggressively jokey proceedings. Alterman’s direction is sloppy and substandard even by modest frat-comedy standards. But the film is truly torpedoed by Old School scribe Scot Armstrong’s threadbare script, which strains so hard to give Moon a memorably wacko set piece that it fails to recognize that Ferrell’s funniest big-screen efforts have, crucially, complemented the SNL alum’s larger-than-life goofballs with a plethora of well-developed, equally eccentric peripheral characters. Ferrell’s two collaborations with director and writing partner McKay shrewdly spread the comedic love around so as to raise everyone’s game (and, consequently, the overarching humor quotient), a generosity of spirit that would immensely benefit shabby hired-gun star vehicles like this.