“Semi-Pro” is an underdog sports comedy in the vein “Major League” but with a far more developed sense of humor. Its probably as close to an ensemble as Ferrell has gotten in a film, ceding most of the main plot points to co-stars Harrelson and Benjamin as a washed up champ and his protégé, which may not have been the best decision as he’s still responsible for the majority of the laughs. The ones he’s not responsible for come from color commentators Andrew Daly and Will Arnett. In fact, Daly often upstages Ferrell in his own movie with a natural, unassuming delivery that bothers noting the silly things he’s actually saying.
Ensemble or not, it is still very much a Will Ferrell movie with a Will Ferrell sense of humor, some of which is more (intentionally) annoying than it is funny as Jackie (like every other Ferrell character ever) is often completely unaware of how ridiculous or outside of everyday norms his behavior is. The idea is to make him so obnoxious he’s funny, but this old joke is probably too successful.
That said, first time director Kent Alterman and his screenwriter (and longtime Todd Phillips collaborator) Scot Armstrong have very good instincts. They understand to be truly funny a joke has to be taken to its most extreme conclusion, and then one step further again. Even the most obvious setups and punch lines are made to work when they get taken to the edge for one good unexpected laugh. It’s also juvenile as all hell, and that has to be taken into account. If you don’t like that sort of thing you’ll never like “Semi-Pro,” so don’t even bother. Which is too bad, because there are a few moments of near brilliance in there, particularly the bear routine, and any time Daly is on screen.
At the same time it’s also not as funny as many of Ferrell’s recent films, though that has more to do with screen time than anything else. It spends a lot of time with Harrelson’s attempts to get back together with his long lost love and recover his (and the team’s) self-esteem, all of which is rarely funny (except for a brilliant running gag with Rob Corddry) and extreme perfunctory. It’s rare that story gets in the way of the quality of film, but this is one of those cases, mostly because the story and the comedy aren’t particularly well integrated. They’re two completely separate parts of the film that don’t connect at all and it shows.
It also doesn’t take as much advantage of its supporting cast as it could. Talented comedians like David Koechner and Andy Richter are left playing straight men, which is just a waste of talent.
“Semi-Pro” isn’t the most well-designed of comedies, it’s far too disjointed without enough thought given to making it work as a whole, but there are enough genuinely funny moments, especially from upstart Daly, to make it worth a look.