Against all odds, SNL alum Will Ferrell has taken his lunk-headed jock schtick and turned it into a successful movie career. Aside from a handful of quirky dramadies like ‘Stranger Than Fiction,’ ‘Melinda and Melinda,’ and ‘Winter Passing,’ Ferrell has gravitated to overstated comedies to transform himself into Hollywood’s go-to manchild. To his credit, the formula has worked well over the last ten years, allowing the comedian to evolve from supporting bit player to leading man. Sadly, his latest jaunt into goofball comedy, ‘Semi-Pro,’ failed at the box office, disappointed audiences and critics, and falls flatter than I ever expected a Will Ferrell comedy to fall.
In 1976, a smash-hit single called “Love Me Sexy” scores singer Jackie Moon (Ferrell) enough cash to buy the Flint Tropics, a basketball team in the American Basketball Association. Sweating in the spotlight as coach, promoter, and star forward, Jackie’s newly acquired team can hardly win a game, much less work together on the court. When the ABA commissioner (David Koechner) decides to merge his top four teams with the NBA, Jackie becomes determined to fix the defunct Tropics and worm his way into the pros. To boost his team’s record, Jackie arranges bizarre promotions, nabs former Celtic Ed Monix (Harrelson), and convinces his streetballing friend Clarence (Andre Benjamin) to join. However, even when Jackie brings his team to the top of the heap, the commissioner tells him their record is irrelevant -- the NBA won’t support a team in a minor media market like Flint anyway. What follows is a jumbled montage of genre clichés that gives Jackie one last shot (quite literally) to prove he’s a decent guy rather than a complete failure.
In my humble opinion, the critically panned ‘Bewitched’ feels like an AFI top-100 comedy next to ‘Semi-Pro.’ Ferrell’s visit to the ABA collapses under the weight of a thousand stale jokes, a predictable plot, and a series of recycled gags. In fact, the entire script struck me as a phoned-in mess that failed to surprise, relying too heavily on its R-rating for the majority of its laughs. Such a low-brow celebration of locker rooms and jock straps may appeal to fans of ‘90s gross-out comedies, but those who enjoy more modern R-rated comedies (from filmmakers like Judd Apatow) will roll their eyes at the tired characterizations and the been-there-seen-that improvisation. Sure, Ferrell still invests every ounce of his soul into his character and comes up with a handful of genuinely hilarious bits (including a bear attack in the final moments of the film), but injecting some extra F-bombs into a film isn’t enough to guarantee a laugh from me. I prefer comedies that amuse my brain as much as my gut.
The most disappointing aspect of ‘Semi-Pro’ is the potential and wit buried beneath its faulty execution. Had the film smartly skewered its era like ‘Anchorman,’ toyed with fans and detractors of its sport like ‘Talladega Nights,’ or satirized the conventions of its athletes like ‘Blades of Glory,’ I would be writing a completely different review. I don’t approach a Will Ferrell comedy for academic humor, but I do expect to be hit with something I haven’t seen before. ‘Semi-Pro’ simply runs through the paces of a Will Ferrell comedy without ever finding its focus or allowing the actor to work his magic. The production honestly feels rushed -- it’s as if the filmmakers only had a few days to shoot the first draft of a script. It might have worked as a straight-to-video cash-in, but it flops as a feature film.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m as bummed as the next guy -- I usually adore Will Ferrell movies and often find myself laughing at his expressions, even when he’s simply standing in the background of a shot. ‘Semi-Pro’ was a big letdown from beginning to end and left me wondering what went wrong. It features a great cast, a fantastic parade of cameos, and a solid setup, but it never came close to living up to my expectations. While you should gauge your anticipation on your adoration of Ferrell, prepare yourself for the worst. Luckily, comedy is an extremely subjective genre and I’m sure ‘Semi-Pro’ will make someone somewhere laugh themselves silly.
(Note the Blu-ray edition of ‘Semi-Pro’ includes the 92-minute R-rated theatrical cut and an extended 99-minute Unrated cut. The differences between the two are pretty negligible, but fans of the film will be pleased to get some extra time with the Tropics. New Line has placed both cuts on a single disc, and added a second Blu-ray disc to house all of the supplemental features.)
’Semi-Pro’ features a quasi-pleasing 1080p/VC-1 transfer that does a decent job of bringing its flamboyant palette to life. Colors are as decadent as one would expect from the film’s ‘70s-inspired digs, skintones are properly saturated, and black levels are strong. Likewise, fine object detail looks decidedly high-def and manages to enhance the authenticity of the period costumes and locations. The curls in Ferrell’s hair are carefully rendered, fabric has a realistic textural grit, and the reach-out-and-touch-it appearance of each basketball is impressive. Better still, shots of Flint look as low rent as they should since every aging building bears an undeniably worn appearance. In that regard, the transfer strikes an appropriate visual balance between the film’s setting and comedic tone, calling to mind the high-def transfer Paramount minted for ‘Anchorman.’
However, that’s not to say this transfer is a 1080p showcase. Since the picture is entirely dependent on the film’s sometimes hazy source and fluctuating grain fields, it never feels as solid as a recent release should. As it stands, clarity takes a hit every time the filmmakers allow muddy hues to dominate their soft-focus camerawork -- a deadly combination that tends to merge the foreground and background into one layer. Add to that a series of weak contrast levels hindering the dimensionality of the picture and you have a transfer that fails to generate a satisfying illusion of depth. Unfortunately, since I didn’t see ‘Semi-Pro’ in theaters, it’s tough to judge whether these presentation mishaps are the result of directorial intent or evidence of technical deficiencies in the transfer. Either way, the overall visual experience is underwhelming compared to other recent BD releases.
Compared to the video transfer, ‘Semi-Pro’s DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track seems like overkill. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ecstatic when a studio like New Line utilizes the latest and greatest technology the format has to offer -- it’s just that an R-Rated, slapstick comedy isn’t the sort of film I’d grab to show off my audio equipment. In this case, the film’s dialogue is fantastically crisp as it’s distributed across the front channels. Prioritization is spot on, sound effects are scattered accurately throughout the soundfield, and the track’s interior acoustics are surprisingly rich considering the nature of the film. Of course, the limited soundscape didn’t give my LFE channel the workout it’s used to, but it still made an impression by boosting the doom doom of dribbling basketballs and the roar of the stadium crowds.
The biggest downside is that there’s little else to compliment -- the audio mix may be high-end, but it isn’t involving enough to separate ‘Semi-Pro’ from its genre brethren. The rear speakers don’t have a lot to do, I never felt as if I was in the middle of a real stadium, and the film’s ambient effects are too subtle or inconsistent to warrant much praise. As usual, these issues aren’t the result of a shoddy mix, but rather the product of the film’s limited sound design. In the end, this Master Audio track handles everything thrown its way, it just doesn’t have enough to work with to leave a lasting impression.
’Semi-Pro’ ports all of the special features from the 2-disc DVD and presents all but one of them in high definition. Sadly, the content isn’t funny or interesting. When it shoots for humor it comes up short and when it tries to seriously explore the production it has a hard time maintaining its focus. Ultimately, I appreciated the studio’s technical presentation of the content, but I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the quality of the behind-the-scenes material.
Will Ferrell's clunky turn in 'Semi-Pro' didn't do it for me, but the subjectivity of comedies suggest someone out there will probably love it. I found this 2-disc Blu-ray release to be a bit better than the film, offering both an above average transfer and DTS HD MA 7.1 surround track. Unfortunately, some technical flaws and a poor supplemental package fail to make this a valuable release. Give it a rent -- if you enjoy the film, this BD edition is a no-brainer.