Mar 4, 2008

On Semi-Pro

How oddly fitting it is. Last weekend, just days before its demise was announced, the final New Line Cinema release as an independently operated entity was the Will Ferrell period basketball comedy Semi-Pro. In the film, one that hoped to follow on the success of Ferrell’ monster grossing absurdist sports vehicles Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Blades of Glory, Ferrell’s Jackie Moon, Jew-fro’d 70s soul singing superstar turned American Basketball Association player/coach/owner/public address announcer, is a free wheeling, fiercely ambitious entrepreneur who struggles against and ultimately loses to the zeitgeist of corporate consolidation, much as New Line founder Robert Shaye, a noted free spirit himself, recently lost the studio he nursed for forty years to a downsizing Time Warner’s new beancounter n’ chief, Jeffery Bewkes, who has decided to fold the New York based pseudo indie into Warner Brothers.

While not the near classic that Rickey Bobby has become, Semi-Pro holds up pretty well, especially when reading it as allegory for the difficulties facing independent entrepreneurs. The year is 1976 and Moon’s Flint Tropics are the worst team in the nascent ABA, the upstart league that has proved pesky and resourceful enough to force the NBA into considering a merger. Moon is more entertainer than ballplayer; he spends more time designing elaborate, player led halftime shows and finding ways to skimp out on his elaborate promotions than figuring out how to penetrate defenses. Playing in front of largely empty stands, with tight jersey’s that suggest the Miami Dolphins moved north and started playing hoops in industrial Michigan, the Tropics prospects look gloomy. With the NBA only agreeing to allow four teams from the ABA to enter the merged league, the team seems destined for the dustbin of history.

Yet Farrell and his cohorts, who include Andre (3000) Benjamin as the teams stereotypically selfish, afro coiffed star Clarence “Coffee” Black and Woody Harrelson, an aging ex-NBA champ newly arrived in a trade from the Kentucky Colonials that sent a washing machine the other way, have other plans. After Moon negotiates a deal with the other owners allowing the top four teams from the league to move on to the NBA instead of the teams in the largest media markets, the newly focused Tropics make a heroic and hilarious run for fourth place.

This is the first time Farrell has had a team sport as his fodder and indeed, he seems to be expending less energy for the laughs this time around. Like veteran point guards, writer Scot Armstrong and director Kent Alterman spread the ball around, allowing their cast, deep in comedic talents, ample opportunities to work their magic. Harrelson’s mid-career renaissance continues, largely playing straight man to Farrell and providing an appropriate foil and motivator for Benjamin’s character. People like Jackie Earle Haley and Rob Corddry turn up in surprisingly hysterical supporting turns, as does Andy Richter, who was transcendent as Sasha Baron Cohen’s German, lit professor lover in Talladega Nights. Even Maura Tierney, one of the most chronically underused of American actresses still in their prime, shines in her largely pedestrian role of Harrelson’s love interest.

The exiting Mr. Shaye and his longtime confidant Michael Lynne ran, from all accounts this writer has heard, an eclectic shop and Semi-Pro falls faithfully into that tradition. While the studio arguably saw its best years in the late 90s, when young executive Michael DeLuca was providing haven for new works by young wunderkinds like Paul Thomas Anderson and Alex Proyas, New Line didn’t often shy away from taking risks, especially with its defunct specialty division Fine Line. As films that bask in 70s nostalgia like Semi-Pro always seem to suggest, the party is over, but it seemed to be fun while it lasted.