Des­per­ately seek­ing laughs

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

SPORTS movies are rarely suc­cess­ful at the box of­fice, pos­si­bly be­cause sport lovers aren’t nec­es­sar­ily cin­ema go­ers. But for­mer Satur­day Night Live alum­nus Will Fer­rell has, in three pre­vi­ous films ( Kick­ing & Scream­ing, about a chil­dren’s soc­cer team; Tal­ladega Nights, NASCAR rac­ing; and Blades of Glory, pro­fes­sional ice- skat­ing) mined le­git­i­mate laughs out of un­promis­ing ma­te­rial.

The last two films were fre­quently very funny, thanks mainly to Fer­rell’s en­gag­ingly self­cen­tred per­for­mances. Each film was made by a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tor, sug­gest­ing that per­haps Fer­rell is the au­teur be­hind the scenes. With his new film, Semi- Pro, about a bas­ket­ball team at­tempt­ing to stay in the ma­jor leagues in 1976, the run of creative suc­cesses comes to a grind­ing halt: Semi- Pro is numb­ingly un­funny, cringe­mak­ing in its hope­less at­tempts to mine a glim­mer of hu­mour from the most un­promis­ing sit­u­a­tions. Sud­denly Fer­rell no longer looks ami­ably boofy: he looks slightly des­per­ate.

Again there’s a new di­rec­tor; Kent Al­ter­man was for­merly a de­vel­op­ment ex­ec­u­tive at New Line, the now de­funct com­pany that pro­duced the film. He should keep his day job be­cause he shows no feel­ing for the rhythms of com­edy. Scot Arm­strong’s limp screen­play also should have been sent back to the draw­ing board.

It doesn’t help that only the most sports­ded­i­cated non- Amer­i­cans would be re­motely in­ter­ested in the machi­na­tions and ri­val­ries be­tween the Amer­i­can Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion and the longer es­tab­lished Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion dur­ing the mid- 1970s.

A brisk, but not very il­lu­mi­nat­ing, open­ing mon­tage ex­plains that Jackie Moon ( Fer­rell) was a singer whose only suc­cess­ful sin­gle was a hideous song about oral sex ( im­me­di­ately strik­ing out Semi- Pro as a fam­ily film) and that he had used the pro­ceeds to pur­chase ABA team the Trop­ics, based in his home town, Flint, Michi­gan. ( This, I pre­sume, is meant to be funny be­cause as Michael Moore, who hails from Flint, demon­strated in his sear­ing doc­u­men­tary Roger and Me ( 1989), the city is as un­trop­i­cal as you could pos­si­bly imag­ine.)

Not only has the odi­ous Moon pur­chased the team, he has also in­stalled him­self as its coach, lead player and gen­eral mover and shaker. But the team has only one de­cent player, Withers ( An­dre Ben­jamin), and is also in des­per­ate need of funds to pay for the in­creas­ingly wild pro­mo­tions with which Moon hopes to at­tract more fans.

Mean­while, the NBA and the ABA have agreed to merge, but only the top four ABA teams will be ac­cepted into the new com­pe­ti­tion and the Trop­ics aren’t likely to be among them un­less, some­how, Moon can im­prove their prospects. He at­tempts to do this by hir­ing Ed Monix ( Woody Har­rel­son), an NBA player who has seen bet­ter days.

Semi- Pro at­tempts to find hu­mour in bikini­clad cheer­lead­ers and groupies; a hus­band who is aroused when he dis­cov­ers his wife hav­ing sex with an­other man; a chain- smok­ing ra­dio com­men­ta­tor; a Catholic priest ref­eree who uses colour­ful lan­guage; and a skinny hip­pie palmed off with a dud cheque when he wins a com­pe­ti­tion.

The arc of the film holds no sur­prises, but the paucity of gen­uine com­edy, the lack of even slightly amus­ing gags and the strained per­for­mances do. When the film re­sorts to low- level cam­era an­gles of Fer­rell’s crotch as he pre­pares to throw the ball, you know it’s in se­ri­ous trou­ble; when the only slightly comic se­quence has Fer­rell wrestling with a bear, then you may as well head for the exit.

* * * JOIN­ING Elvis Pres­ley’s film de­but, Love Me Ten­der, in the run­ning for the least gram­mat­i­cal movie ti­tle is How She Move, yet an­other step danc­ing film ( see also Stomp the Yard and Step Up 2 the Streets ).

The plot in this Cana­dian pro­duc­tion is straight out of one of those Mickey RooneyJudy Gar­land mu­si­cals of the late ’ 30s. In that re­spect, at least, noth­ing much has changed, even if just about ev­ery­thing else has. The hero­ine ( Rutina Wesley) has to prove to the hero ( Dwain Mur­phy) that she can keep up with him in the danc­ing stakes and even be an as­set in an up­com­ing com­pe­ti­tion with a $ 50,000 prize.

The film, di­rected by Ian Iqbal Rashid and writ­ten by An­n­marie Mo­rais, takes place among mem­bers of the Caribbean com­mu­nity in Toronto and neigh­bour­ing Hamil­ton. Teenager Raya ( Wesley) has am­bi­tions to be a doc­tor and her sep­a­rated par­ents have saved up enough money to send her to a private school.

Her older sis­ter, who has re­cently died as a re­sult of her heroin ad­dic­tion, has drained the fam­ily’s re­sources, and Raya is forced to leave the leafy con­fines of exclusive ed­u­ca­tion to en­rol in a far less salu­bri­ous pub­lic school. She forms a friend­ship- ri­valry with Michelle ( Tre Arm­strong), who may be go­ing down the same path as her sis­ter, and is at­tracted to Bishop ( Mur­phy), a mi­nor step danc­ing star and leader of JSJ, an all- male troupe pre­par­ing for a big con­test in Detroit. See­ing a way to raise the money she needs for her ed­u­ca­tion, Raya — who hap­pens to be the best step dancer on the block — per­suades Bishop to let her be­come a mem­ber of JSJ.

No prizes for guess­ing the out­come: films such as th­ese could be writ­ten by com­puter. And it’s sad that cin­e­matog­ra­pher An­dre Pien­aar too of­ten frames the danc­ing se­quences so that the all- im­por­tant feet are off the screen. ( Fred As­taire and Ginger Rogers would never have per­mit­ted such a thing.) But in com­pen­sa­tion, the young and at­trac­tive cast has bound­less en­ergy and the danc­ing, when we are al­lowed to see it prop­erly, is im­pres­sive.

In the mi­nor league: Will Fer­rell, left, cries foul in Semi- Pro ; a scene from Cana­dian step danc­ing film How She Move, above

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