Heather Mallick recently wrote a column about Susan Jacoby's new book The Age of American Unreason. In typical Mallickian style she observed that Jacoby's book, "Obliterates all hope and leaves a steaming black pit. It's the most depressing book since Bambi, and I was six when I read that. Bambi's mother isn't coming back and neither is the American drive towards rationalism, self-improvement, respect for measurable scientific truth and ability to understand sentences with clauses."
What does this have to do with Semi-Pro, silly Willy Ferrell's latest rim job? Other than the fact that Ferrell's character, a washed-up '70s pop star called Jackie Moon, also compares himself to Bambi's mother, maybe nothing. Or, if you're so inclined, maybe Semi-Pro is just one more stop on the long strange trip towards the end point of Western civilization. All aboard, who's coming aboard.
Big hair, little brains
Semi-Pro takes place in 1976, the virtual height of '70s-style bacchanalia. Everyone is busy getting high, getting laid, talking trash, and growing enormous nimbuses of hair. It's the good old days, although with oil reaching record heights and OPEC wagging its finger at America, it doesn't seem all that different from today, but I digress.
The thing that I remember most about the '70s was that there were always a lot of naked adults wandering about. There is something of that satyr spirit that sticks to Semi-Pro, a funk that lingers. Right in the middle of the sexual revolution, stands Jackie Moon, a one-hit-wonder, whose song "Love Me Sexy" enabled him to buy the Flint Tropics.
Languishing in the bottom rungs of the American Basketball Association (ABA), the Tropics are running out the clock on their current season, playing for a handful of fans every night, and basically waiting around to die. But Jackie, who functions as the team's power forward, manager, coach and promoter, has big plans for his lackluster bunch, and the balls to make it happen.
Or so he thinks. The news that a planned merger with the big show (the NBA) will involve only the top four teams in the league, leaving the rest to dissolve, firms up Jackie's determination to make it to fourth place. With a few hoary speeches, and the addition of a fading star called Monix (played by a leathery Woody Harrelson), the team is ready for its run to glory. Cue the funky music, white boy.
Semi-Pro has a lot of problems, not the least of which is that it is simply bone lazy in terms of plot development, story and pretty much everything else. Its biggest problem, however, is that it is really two different films jammed up against each other. In the middle of a typical Will Ferrell vehicle is a classic sports drama, peopled with all the usual types -- the wise old veteran, the brash young buck, the last minute heroic save, etc. To invoke another '70s reference, Semi-Pro is really a bit Sybil. One moment it's Hoosiers and the next minute it's Hooters.
Occasionally the two halves work as team, but the rest of the time each different section is trying to hog centre stage. When comedy is simply about looking funny and acting silly, Mr. Ferrell suffices well enough, but here he seems almost secondary to the action. You start to feel almost a little embarrassed by his presence after a while.
This is especially the case whenever André "3000" Benjamin is on screen. The very fine Mr. Benjamin, in addition to being half of the hip hop duo Outkast, has developed into a pretty decent actor as of late. As the young hot head Clarence "Coffee" Black, he brings a quiet dignity to the proceedings that seems to exist almost in another film. He even looks really good in '70s outfits!
In amongst the silliness and the retro-fakery, there is a genuine quality to Clarence's character that sticks out like a neon sign. So much so, that when his big moment to shuck money and fame and help out his old teammates unfolds, you can be forgiven for feeling a little confused by the sudden swell of emotion. Sports dramas, even if they're played for giggles, still have some basic rules to attend to, and that's the case in Semi-Pro as well.
Comedy rides the bench while the old clichés about working together, following your heart, and winning one for the Gipper are trotted out. Sentiment and old-fashioned American values sit oddly in a film that refuses to take anything (including itself) very seriously. That's not to say that Semi-Pro isn't occasionally funny, it is, but only in the most slapdash manner possible.
It is also a big old boys club, as are most Ferrell films. Women are merely background noise, bouncing boobies and bikinis. The one female in the film has to make do with that very worst of roles, the nice understanding girlfriend. One feels for actress Maura Tierney, who takes on that onerous task here. The woman looks pained throughout.
The celebration of dumbness for dumbness' sake has been the American way in comedy for a very long time, and Will Ferrell often seems the standard-bearer for this phenomena. You either like the man and his movies, or you really don't. The very mention of his name is sufficient to cause some full-grown men to fall down laughing, but I never get what the hullabaloo is about.
Dumber and dumber
The most Mr. Ferrell inspires in me is a type of benign indifference. His various idiot man characters don't really differ very much from film (Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, Ron Burgundy in Anchorman and now Jackie Moon). They bumble through life convinced of their own innate rightness, and by extension, all is right and good in America culture -- NASCAR, basketball, beer and boobies.
If you don't want to think or feel too much, just want to retreat into a state of slack-jawed puerile goofiness, then you'll be well pleased with Semi-Pro. And really, what do you go to a Will Ferrell film for, other than a few dumb giggles? No great harm right? If there was only a couple of similar films on offer that might be true, but dumb comedies seem to be the only game in town. Who needs wit when you have cock talk and bear attacks?
Infantilism taken to its logical extension means eventually you lose the ability to think and speak altogether and merely grunt at the shiny moving colours and funny faces. Which is what that Heather Mallick babe is talking about. Bambi's mother has left the building and she isn't coming back. If this is what you were coming back to would you?
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