I’m so tired of hearing myself complaining about these movies that I may just give it up. The entire genre of “comedy” has been taken over by movies that can’t decide what the hell they are, relegating competently executed funny films to the subgenres of “dramedy” or “black comedy.” This is what we’ve come to: When a comedy works nowadays, we can no longer call it simply “a comedy” lest it be confused with these incoherent mishmashes.
These incoherent mishmashes. Are they juvenile grossouts? Sentimental dramas? Cultural satires? Hell, why can’t they be all that, and more? Except they can’t. Maybe they could if the perpetrators of them had something approaching an idea about how to make multiple and wildly varied tones mesh. But they don’t, so they don’t bother. They just swing with thoughtless abandon from one posture to another. Bam! Here’s a vomit joke! Bam! Here’s a tenderly romantic moment! Bam! Here’s something that’ll make you titter uncomfortably about sex if you’re still in junior high! Bam! Here’s where you’re supposed to get all teary-eyed over the triumph of the underdog team! Bam! Here’s something that makes no logical sense in either a drama or a grossout!
Forget entertainment aimed at those with short attention spans: Semi-Pro — and all the many movies like it these days — works only if you have no attention span. None. I mean, seriously, if you cannot remember anything from one moment to the next, then you might possibly find this mildly amusing. Or mildly dramatic. Cuz Will Ferrell’s (Blades of Glory, Stranger Than Fiction) clueless dork of a one-hit-wonder pop star slash pro basketball player slash team owner slash promoter is not, in itself, an incompetently rendered portrait of, you know, clueless dorkiness. It just belongs in a different movie, one that does not also feature Woody Harrelson (No Country for Old Men, A Scanner Darkly), in a not incompetently rendered portrait of an NBA benchwarmer who comes aboard Ferrell’s ABA team in an attempt to whip them into shape so they can measure up to NBA standards. And it certainly does not belong in a movie in which the wonderful Maura Tierney (Welcome to Mooseport, Scotland, PA) is called upon to render a portrait of a woman in love with a man — that would be Harrelson’s fuckup — who isn’t capable of loving himself, never mind someone else. (Tierney is so exquisite, as she always is, that it’s painful to imagine what brought her so low as to agree to bestow her talent upon this movie, which is not worthy of it.) I mean, is this a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or is it a sensitive indie period piece?
The period? The 1970s, our go-to era of the moment when we need a carnival atmosphere. The laziness of Scot Armstrong’s script in all respects is appalling, but most often, perhaps, when it come to the era. (Then again, he wrote the recent dreadful update of The Heartbreak Kid, so not being appalling does not appear to be a concern of his.) Sure, the story needs to be set here, because Ferrell’s ABA team, the Flint, Michigan Tropics, needs to find a way to survive the league’s merger with the NBA, and that actually happened in the 70s, so, okay. And without question there was some weird shit going on in the 70s with people mixing plaids and such. But Armstrong is so unwilling to make any effort whatsoever that he feels he can merely point to things and that makes them funny. Look! Fondue! It’s like the audience actually is expected not to be able to make it three lines of dialogue later to a punchline.
Which makes it honesty impossible for me to complain about the followup on the whole “jive-talker” thing. A bit early in the film sets up the idea of “jive-talker” being the worst insult this gang of idiots can imagine. Okay, fine. But then later on, Ferrell’s character is sputtering around, trying to find the worst insult he can find to throw down at his team. What does he settle on? “Motherfucking cocksucker.” Seriously. But to be fair to the movie, this comes, like, a good 45 minutes after the jive-talker bit, and who could be expected to retain the concept of “jive-talker” as an insult — on top of the corndog joke without a punchline and the extended unfunny conversation about porn, never mind the fondue — for such a ridiculous length of time?