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Semi-Pro’ doesn’t beat ‘Anchorman’

By Trevor Hale

“Semi-Pro”New Line CinemaWritten by Scot ArmstrongDirected by Kent Alterman

Starring Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, Will Arnett, Rob Corddry and Maura TierneyTwo out of four stars

Will Ferrell was able to mine comedy gold from the 1970s by playing self-absorbed newscaster Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman.” That movie worked so well that Ferrell must have thought it was the era itself that equaled hilarity, because for “Semi-Pro,” Ferrell is back in the disco era. As is usually the case, it’s hard to get lightning to strike the same spot twice.

Set in the town of Flint, Mich., in 1976, Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the owner, coach and power forward for the Flint Tropics. Moon was a one-hit wonder with the song “Love Me Sexy,” and the whispered lyrics start the film out with a laugh before the first image even appears on screen. Moon, like most of Ferrell’s characters, is an arrogant caricature that only aspires to remain famous no matter the consequences. When it’s announced that the top four teams in the ABA, the league in which the Tropics play, will merge with the NBA, Moon makes it his goal to get his team out of the cellar and into one of those positions.

“Semi-Pro” flows like every sports-comedy ever made and every Ferrell movie of the past five years (“Stranger Than Fiction” excluded). The plot of the film is mainly a backdrop for Ferrell and his friends to make jokes, and while a lot of them are funny, almost an equal amount aren’t.

Ferrell is able to talk some of his friends into funny roles, like Will Arnett and Andrew Daly as the Tropics broadcast team, who are able to play off each other to hilarious results-and Andy Richter is always funny, no matter how small his role. Richter only has a little bit of screen time, but he makes great use of every bit of it. Jackie Earle Haley, playing a perpetually stoned Tropics fan, gets sent on a mission that would have been a great subplot to develop. Instead, the story dictates that we stick with the Tropics’ and their new point guard Monix (Woody Harrelson).

Harrelson and André Benjamin (as the Tropics lone good player) are both forced into playing the straight man for everyone else to work around, and that’s probably a good thing because neither of them are the least bit funny. The film’s humor comes to a screeching halt each time Harrelson’s character takes off on his own to look for an old flame, still residing in Flint with a new boyfriend. It’s like the studio felt it was necessary to shoehorn a love story in to get the female demographic-and Harrelson simply isn’t the man for the job. Harrelson’s sub-plots carry on for far too long, which only distracts from the funnier, worthwhile parts with Ferrell.

With “Anchorman,” top-notch comedians who all had the chemistry and insight to play to each other’s strengths surrounded Ferrell and gave the impression that these people knew what they were doing. Even Christina Applegate was able to hold her own in the boys’ club. However, in “Semi-Pro,” the comedic chemistry is severely lacking. There’s a plethora of funny parts, but there’s little consistency to the jokes and too much emphasis on unfunny characters forced to drive a razor-thin plot for an hour-and-a-half.

“Semi-Pro” is Ferrell’s film to carry all the way, and when he’s on-screen, it’s great-when he’s not, that’s another story. Next time around, the role of the straight man needs to be given to actors capable of carrying the load, rather than someone who doesn’t understand how to take a backseat to the real star of the film. Or better yet, someone just as funny as the lead.

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