Semi-Pro, by Albert W. Vogt III

Will I ever make it through every Will Ferrell movie ever made?  It is tough to say.  There are a lot of them.  I am sure I have said this in talking about other films of his, but they all blend together into a miasma of innuendo and shouting.  Sometimes he makes something different, like Stranger Than Fiction (2006), where he tones down his antics a few notches.  Yet, not long thereafter it is right back to his usual shenanigans as it is with Semi-Pro (2008).  To be fair, I like this one more than most if for no other reason than it is about sports.  Sure, it is goofy, unrealistic, but that is Will Ferrell for you.  It also has a priest in it, Father Pat the Ref (Matt Walsh), and he is not a complete caricature.  Why they decided to have a member of the Catholic clergy officiating games for the American Basketball Association (ABA), which actually did exist, I have no idea.  But, hey, it is something, no?

Before we get to the “fast-paced” basketball action in Semi-Pro, we are introduced to the owner, coach, and starting power forward of the Flint Tropics (which is hilarious), Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell).  He followed the usual American dream.  You know the one, right, where you come up with a hit disco song, “Love Me Sexy,” make a bunch of money, and buy a basketball franchise in the heart of America’s dying industrial section.  As his music career fades, so too do the fortunes of his team.  He does his best to promote attendance, like promising $10,000 he does not have to anyone who can make a full court shot, but there is still a dwindling amount of people in the stands.  His players are also getting word that the ABA will soon be merging with the National Basketball Association (NBA), and thus believe their playing days are numbered.  By the way, yes, that NBA.  Jackie looks forward to the merger because he believes that it will save his team. Unfortunately, at the next owners’ meeting, he learns that only four franchises from the ABA will enter the NBA, and the Tropics are not one of them.  On the heels of Jackie throwing a temper tantrum fit for a toddler, one of the other owners suggests that they have a tournament to decide the best four teams, and whoever they are at the end of the season will earn the right to be in the NBA.  The problem for the Tropics is that they are in last place.  Nonetheless, Jackie eagerly agrees to the new proposal.  To help their chances, he trades a washing machine for veteran point guard Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson).  He had been on the Boston Celtics when they won a championship, so he has a certain pedigree.  Any other athlete might have their pride hurt to be swapped for an appliance, but Ed has come to Flint so that he can be closer to Lynn (Maura Tierney).  She and Ed had been a couple before, but Ed had ruined it by cheating on her.  Now, at the tail end of his career, he has come to apologize and win her back.  As for the team, their star player, Clarence “Coffee Black” Withers (André Benjamin), scoffs at Ed’s presence.  The younger player sees Ed as washed up, and makes fun of the role the older player filled on the Celtics’ title run by primarily being on the bench.  Jackie, though trying to be a peacemaker, has other priorities.  He cares more about putting on a show to get people in the seats.  To this end, he has the players doing a dance routine dressed in costumes of tropical flora and fauna.  In the midst of one game where they get into a fight during a commercial break with the opposing team, and everyone is excited, including the fans, before going into the locker room at half time.  Everyone, that is, except for Ed.  When Clarence makes fun of Ed’s passion, Ed accuses Clarence of being a lazy showboat who will never make it to the NBA.  This has an effect on Clarence because the next day he approaches Ed asking the veteran to help the team be better.  They even find a way to assuage the ever-sensitive Jackie.  Ed teaches the team fundamentals and they begin winning games.  As the season progresses, though, new rules come down saying that they must also average 2,000 attendees a night.  As such, Jackie resorts to more desperate measures, such as agreeing to wrestle a live bear after their next home game.  Predictably, this goes sideways, particularly when it gets loose in the stadium.  As the crowd runs in every direction in panic, the ABA commissioner, Alan Ault (David Koechner), arrives to tell Jackie that the NBA has decided that they will not be taking the Tropics no matter where they finish because it is too small a market.  Jackie is devastated, and trades Clarence to the San Antonio Spurs so that he can live out his dreams of professional basketball.  Speaking of those Spurs, they are the Tropic’s last opponent, and who they would have needed to beat to earn fourth place and entrance into the NBA.  It takes Ed to remind everyone that they had set out to attain this goal at the beginning of the season, and they should follow through with it.  A revived Jackie decides to go out with a bang, figuratively and literally.  The literal part is a confetti cannon, and the figurative part is the made-up and meaningless “Mega-Bowl” to incentivize the Tropics to win.  The game starts out poorly.  With Clarence watching from the bench, Jackie gets brutally fouled and knocked out before the end of the first half.  While unconscious, Jackie has a vision of his mother (Patti LaBelle) in Heaven.  She gives him the idea for the alley-oop, which apparently in this universe had never before been seen.  The Tropics are able to run it with Clarence joining their team midgame.  With it, they go on to victory.  Everyone is happy, particularly Jackie when Alan offers him a job with the NBA as a promoter, though Alan is just as quickly attacked by the bear.

There is a lot of inappropriateness in Semi-Pro.  Part of the reason is because it is set during the 1970s and most of the stereotypes from that decade seem to pertain to sexuality in some form.  Luckily, there is no nudity.  It gets weird, though, and I will say no more on the subject.  I mentioned in the introduction that it was nice to see a priest that is not portrayed with any negative stereotypes.  I was not thrilled when they have him cursing, but at least he keeps his cool when Jackie screams outrageous things about murdering his family in the cleric’s face.  There is another aspect of the film that warmed this Catholic’s heart, and I am sure it is not intended how I am going to talk about it.  The Tropics’ motto, something about which Jackie is fanatical, is “everybody love everybody.”  It is meant to be more sexual innuendo, basically insinuating an orgy.  Still, let us take it at face value.  That is more than Jackie did, such as when he provoked the aforementioned fist fight.  The notion of loving everyone is the bedrock of Christianity.  It is Jesus’ teaching in a nutshell. This is personified in Ed’s character arc.  One of the things that Lynn says to her early on that underscores this is when she tells Ed that he does not love himself.  It is true, and through his interactions with her and the team, he learns to do broaden that horizon.  I think the results speak for themselves.  Sure, this has nothing to do with theology, but the lesson is there all the same.

If you can ignore the innuendo, which is admittedly difficult, there are some genuinely funny moments in Semi-Pro.  The film does not completely work because the main character is hard to pin down.  A case can be made for either Ed or Jackie.  While Jackie’s face adorns all the promotional material, it is Ed who has the development.  A similar argument can be made for Clarence.  All the same, it is kind of fun.

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