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Personal Foul: Semi-Pro

Will Ferrell's umpteenth sports comedy is only half bad. His half.

Semi-Pro's much better than Blades of Glory, which wasn't nearly as good as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which was a little better than Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was almost as funny as Old School, which was better than everything else Will Ferrell had done up to that point — except maybe Dick, which nobody saw and even fewer remember. Seems this is what it's come down to with Ferrell: grading his movies in various shades of enh as each one blends into the next till they're all one giant gray blob of feh. Which sells short the semi-funny Semi-Pro — essentially Major League clad in 1970s short-shorts, topped with a few 'fros for fun. Still, you seen one Will Ferrell sports comedy, you're good. Too bad you couldn't have started with this one.

After all these others, though, Semi-Pro — written by the man responsible for the unreleasable Heartbreak Kid redo — is hardly a movie anyway; it's more like a series of Will Ferrell sketches occasionally interrupted by a decent sports-redemption comedy starring Woody Harrelson as an aging NBA vet who's come crashing back down to the lesser ABA, where he meets the woman he screwed over and left behind (played by Maura Tierney, now married to a dude, played by former Daily Show-off Rob Corddry, who likes to watch). Harrelson, as former Boston Celtic benchwarmer Eddie Monix, sports a championship ring around his neck — he figures it's better to keep it hidden on a chain than displayed on his finger, where it would advertise his shame at never having actually gotten off the bench in the NBA Finals.

Monix is the archetypal sports-movie hero: a hobbled vet in need of the Last Big Win before he hangs it up, Crash Davis in a tight tank top. But Harrelson plays him perfectly, looking left while shooting right — meaning just when you think he's about to go cheap and broad, he feints with ease toward the thoughtful and subtle. This guy's no schmuck — he's a terrific character in a nifty sports movie about the final season of the American Basketball Association's existence, before four of its teams were absorbed by the NBA.

Another terrific character is Andre Benjamin's Clarence "Coffee" Black, the hot-shit centerpiece of the Flint Tropics, one of the teams about to be adios'd out of the ABA. The OutKast frontman doesn't stoop to the clichés, refusing to play Coffee's bluster for cheap giggles; he's got real soul. Actually, the movie's stocked with terrific, fleshed-out characters, chief among them former MADtv cast member Andrew Daly's sorta-bent straitlaced play-by-play man Dick Pepperfield, Jackie Earle Haley's stoned-outta-his-gourd fan Dukes, Andy Richter's man-boy locker-room attendant Bobby Dee and Matt Walsh's foul-mouthed ref Father Pat. There's not a single unsurprising or unlikable character among the bunch.

Except for Ferrell's Jackie Moon. Because no matter how funny his sole hit single ("Love Me Sexy," played a few too many times) and no matter his proclivity for profanity (this has got to be the cursingest Will Ferrell movie, which counts for something), it's just a casual walk in petrified footsteps. Ferrell's once more playing some nutty dude in a sports-movie parody that's totally enjoyable while you're watching it but also insanely forgettable. Ferrell's almost in the way of these movies at this point, the same way his pal and occasional co-star Ben Stiller is when playing some dim nebbish, which is at least once a year. The movie's better when he's on the bench.

Ferrell, who proved he could do subdued and poignant in the undervalued Stranger Than Fiction, has given up shooting from outside the three-point line. You've seen this act before: He'll speak real low for a really long time and throw raging tantrums and say stupid things and have to get the gang back together for one last Defining Moment and maybe even spawn a catchphrase or two. It's science. At least Ferrell has it down to one, which must be a relief for a first-timer like director Kent Alterman, who valiantly tries to tweak the formula by adding a dash more sincerity and humanity to the froth but doesn't get too adventurous. But in the end, it's comedy comfort food, something powdered poured from a box.

What at least distinguishes Semi-Pro from its predecessors (not only those starring Ferrell, but also such lesser lights as Dodgeball and Balls of Fury) is that it's a slightly darker movie — one made for grown-ups, hence the R rating. In one rather surprisingly tense scene set around a poker table, which begins with someone being called a "jive turkey" as opposed to the apparently more acceptable "cocksucker," a painfully prolonged Deer Hunter reenactment breaks out. The audience half expects someone to blow his head clean off — Jackie Moon, preferably.

 
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