"Semi-Pro," the new Will Ferrell movie, is stuffed with familiar frat house funnyboys - Andy Richter, Will Arnett, Rob Corddry, David Koechner - but the funniest character is probably the mid-1970s. The Disco Decade is the setting for this amiably sloppy basketball comedy, and it has a hairstyle (puffy), a rhythm (funk), a material (polyester), and a flavor (Shasta Red Apple). When some of the players sit down to play Pong, the joke is how insanely excited they are. They're like cavemen discovering a two-pixel fire.
The movie itself is pretty much what we've come to expect from Ferrell, which suggests it's time to reboot the franchise. (He must be running out of ideas; the film's a scant 86 minutes.) The borderline-silly sport this go-round is the "outlaw" American Basketball Association, which really did exist for nine seasons from 1967 to 1976 before being swallowed by the NBA. The star again plays a clueless, graceless naif with too much body hair: Jackie Moon, the owner of the Flint (Mich.) Tropics, who triples as the team's power forward, publicity coordinator, and half-time choreographer.
And again the hero suffers a comic crisis of confidence before bouncing back against all odds, louder and more deluded than ever. You know what you get with Ferrell, and if you don't like it, stay away. If you do, you'll get your laughs, but they won't be as sweet as with "Elf" or as inspired as the ones in "Anchorman:The Legend of Ron Burgundy," still the best movie the man's ever done.
The primary difference in "Semi-Pro" is the movie's locker-room setting and sensibility. The R rating is for language and a lot of creative energy has gone into new uses for old Anglo-Saxonisms; it's one of the more memorably potty-mouthed films in a while. This being the mid-'70s, though, the worst thing you can call a man is a jive turkey - that one almost starts a shoot-out.
Jackie's team is the usual assembly of post-"Bad News Bears" screw-ups (Jackie Earle Haley - Kelly Leak himself - shows up as a stoner fan in the stands). There's the hulking Lithuanian (Peter Cornell), the no-talent Larry Bird look-alike (Josh Braaten), a bunch of African-American Flint locals, and the one decent player, Clarence "Coffee" Black, played with sharp wit by OutKast singer Andre Benjamin.
The ABA commissioner (Koechner) announces the league's going bust, with only four teams to be absorbed into the NBA, and after the expected Ferrell hissy fit Jackie decides to compete, trading the team's washing machine for the washed-up point guard Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson). Disappointingly, Harrelson mostly plays it straight - maybe he saves his comic instincts for dramas like "No Country for Old Men" - and he vows to put the team on top. OK, in fourth place, but it's a start.
The problem with "Semi-Pro" is that it keeps forgetting it's a parody of sports movies; the final scenes are supposed to be uplifting (sort of) but they're not fooling anyone. The film's much better when it just lets the guys gas and sass each other. A bit with a supposedly unloaded gun is a joyously dumb series of riffs on one of the oldest cliches in the slapstick playbook.
The supporting cast is hit and miss, but they're having a good time, especially toward the end when the team gets divine inspiration for the Alley-Oop pass (so that's where it was invented). I liked the sportscasting team of macho, anal-implosive Arnett and unfailingly polite Andrew Daly; even the way the latter corrects the others on the pronunciation of his name - "Dick Pepperfield" - is funny.
The lone woman here is Maura Tierney as Monix's estranged girlfriend, and she has very little to do in this boys' night out. "Semi-Pro" falls squarely in the middle of the tiny genre of basketball movies - it's much worse than "Hoosiers," much better than "Celtic Pride," and about on a par with "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh," the 1979 court comedy that could conceivably appear on a theater marquee in this film.
Instead, we get "Mother, Jugs & Speed" on that marquee and wall-to-wall Average White Band and Ohio Players on the soundtrack. That doesn't make "Semi-Pro" a great movie, but, to quote those sages the Brothers Johnson, it does get the funk out ya face for 86 minutes.