I saw Semi-Pro last week and found myself agreeing with the critical mass, that the movie was in fact terrible. The jokes were lame, the plot was extremely formulaic, and the basketball scenes didn't look real at all (the clips of the Tropics gaining their competitive edge show them throwing up 15 straight alley-oops, to the bewilderment of everyone in the arena). Some people I know took the stance of Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy on espn.com), in that the movie might have signaled the troublesome future of sports movies in general, but my problems with the movie stem largely from how downright offensive it is to see Will Ferrell completely mail it in.
Granted, on the scale of offensive things the lazy performance of a leading man doesn't itself warrant an uproar. The movie wasn't offensive in any way that's "important"; it wasn't racist, sexist, or homophobic. But it was offensive to see a star such as Ferrell, insulated from the world around him, seem to sincerely believe that people would want to see him re-treading a character and idea he had 10 years ago. To see Semi-Pro is to see one of America's leading comedic stars making total suckers out of all who had faith in him.
The film represents a complete tailspin in Will Ferrell's career. We are currently witnessing a star slide into complete irrelevance and self-parody. If you've been keeping track he has now made the same movie three times in a row - Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, and now Semi-Pro. Throw in Anchorman, which is think is only fair, and he's actually played the same character in the same type of movie for four films running. His last successful starring comedic role as someone else was back in 2003's Elf (maybe Bewitched if you want to count that).
This movie that he consistently stars in can be called "Mr. Arrogant." Not necessarily the most clever title but certainly fitting; in this movie Will plays a man whose past glory has given him the world's largest ego and a complete lack of self-awareness (Rob Burgundy, comically arrogant newscaster. Ricky Bobby, comically arrogant NASCAR driver. Character in Blades of Glory/Semi-Pro: comically arrogant figure skater/basketball player). This is exhibited in the genius removal of his shirt in most cases, but is also accompanied by a ridiculous fall from grace and a happy conclusion. The real kicker, however, is, get this, he wears funny clothes! It's as if a studio exec or Mr. Ferrell was reading the script and reacted, "it's got decent jokes, but what if make the characters have silly hair and we put them in suits from the 1970s; it'll be twice as zany!"
I get that Anchorman made a lot of money and won many fans for Ferrell that might have found his work in films like Old School too subtle. Anchorman is a very funny and very quotable movie (Talladega Nights only marginally). I also understand that he has little motivation to try and be funny at all anymore. He's getting paid millions of dollars to hang out with his buddies and wear costumes that would make for a hilarious Facebook picture, so why would he focus on being funny himself? He can keep his credibility by appearing in two-minute videos on funnyordie.com and mail it in the rest of the time.
It's just frustrating because the guy obviously has a lot of talent. I laughed so hard the first two times I saw Old School, especially when he shoots himself with the tranquilizer dart, I thought I might die right there on the sticky floor of the South Burlington movie theater. He made me laugh so hard I feared for my life. His "Best of" from Saturday Night Live, including the passive aggressive dog training seen in the skit, "Dissing your dog," is priceless. And I loved seeing him flex his more dramatic chops in Stranger than Fiction, a bewilderingly underrated movie. So I want to make it clear I'm the type of guy you'd expect to see in Ferrell's a corner. He has provided me with some great times and I wish him all the best. But that best includes snapping out of this routine and getting back to work making me laugh. And I have one simple suggestion that I think will help this process: wear normal clothes.
What all the great performances listed above have in common is that they have Ferrell in a relatable wardrobe, looking like a normal guy. He excels as the average suburbanite, as a Frank the Tank ready to bust loose. This is the type of performance that makes even his family soccer movie, Kicking and Screaming, worth watching. His best skits, including "dissing your dog," the "Get off the shed!" series, and when he works for the Cat Toy company, all show him as a relatable, normal guy, being incredibly funny.
Some people are perhaps funnier when in a ridiculous outfit; for example, Mike Myers (though we'll see if this continues with The Love Guru). But Will Ferrell is not one of them, and even if he were it's very rare that a movie will be successful when one of the core jokes is how silly the characters look in period costumes. That's why anyone could tell Semi-Pro was in trouble from the trailer; the whole thing revolved around a) how ridiculous it is for a bad basketball team in Flint, Michigan to be called the "Tropics," and b) they have afro's (!) and short shorts (!), and talk like people making fun of Shaft (!). Same thing happened with Blades of Glory. It's not like the studio tried to hide it. The preview was about how two guys were wearing spandex and participating in a wussy sport, even though one of them was an arrogant, womanizing macho man (I'll give you a guess who).
It is infuriating to see Ferrell be so lazy and show such little regard for his audience. I mean, he was promoting Semi-Pro like he thought it might actually be good. Those Old Spice commercials of him in tiny shorts make it seem as if he thought the joke still wasn't done, not even after four movies. Did he really not think this movie was going to be bad? (SIDENOTE: this raises an unrelated yet entirely compelling question: can brilliantly funny people all of a sudden wake up one day and no longer be funny? We've seen dramatic and sudden declines in the comedic careers of some of the world's funniest men: Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, and now Will Ferrell. These guys were comic gold until, one day, they weren't. Even Bill Murray had a complete dry spell before Wes Anderson revived him. Is it that these guys fly too close to the sun, and fall to earth hard, leaving their sense of humor somewhere near the heavens? A question for another day.)
Hopefully the box office numbers (a paltry $29.8 million over three weeks) will echo through the walls of Hollywood, and that the public has finally spoken. It might be too much to ask that the studios make the right call, but I'm more hopeful that Ferrell, if not his character(s), will finally get humbled and realize he might actually have to try on the next one, and put back on some normal clothes.