Will Ferrell makes yet another trip to the storied world of sports with the release of Semi-Pro, a movie that is both a homage to and parody of the American Basketball Association (ABA), a competitor to the NBA that eventually merged with it in the ‘70s.
“They put the teams in the most random cities,” Ferrell said. “I think they had one in Lexington, Ky.”
The ABA, though less commercially viable, was known for its flamboyant promotional ploys to get fans in its stands. This is where the central story of Semi-Pro begins to take shape.
Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, the ABA’s top promoter and owner of the fictional Flint, Michigan Tropics. Moon, a one-hit-wonder who becomes wildly successful after his song “Love Me Sexy” tops the charts and nets a fortune, uses his wealth to pursue his dreams in basketball.
The Tropics seem doomed, however, when the heads of the ABA vote to merge with the NBA without Moon’s team. He expertly convinces them to hold a tournament to determine which four teams will go on to the NBA. Moon, a poor basketball player himself, must now whip his disorganized team into shape and boost poor attendance at the Tropics’ stadium to save his team and the pride of his hometown.
Much of the movie’s humor comes from recognition that many of the gimmicky promotional stunts dreamed up by Moon are taken directly from the history books of the ABA.
“There actually was someone who wrestled a bear,” Ferrell remarked about a scene in the movie where his character gets in the ring with a live baby bear to fill seats at the Tropics’ stadium.
The movie will likely resonate more with those who grew up during the 1970s and can appreciate the vast cultural disparity between many of the gaudy portrayals in the movie and the social norms of today.
“You can’t wear short shorts like that anymore [in basketball],” said André “3000” Benjamin, better known as half of hip-hop duo OutKast. “I knew I’d be uncomfortable wearing them, so I always practiced with them on.”
Benjamin co-stars as Clarence “Coffee” Black, an extremely talented basketball player for the Tropics who pioneers the alley-oop.
Semi-Pro follows a long line of movies in which Ferrell parodies a larger-than-life, egotistical main character whose hubris serves as the movie’s central comic motivator and punch line.
“I think [these kinds of characters] are typically American,” Ferrell said. “I think a lot of people in this country have what I call ‘unearned confidence.’”
Ferrell’s distinct style, more apparent as his movie career has progressed, is indicative of the unique relationship he has with his directors. Often, Ferrell will shoot a fully scripted scene followed by one or more ad-libbed versions of the same scene.
“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even ask if it’s okay. I just start talking,” he said. “Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes I do it and I think, ‘Eh, that wasn’t funny.’”
Ferrell’s newest release aims to please, circles the rim and scores. There are a number of hilarious moments in the film, including a gratuitous, ironic game of Russian roulette. Andrew Daly’s performance as Tropics play-by-play announcer also stands out, with his character’s inflated sense of formality contrasting sharply with the absurdity of the film. Overall, the film, taken into historical context, succeeds as an over-the-top parody of a period already known for ridiculous showiness.