Desperately seeking laughs
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