Will Ferrell: Old School or Semi-Pro?

Will Ferrell: The Laurence Olivier of the 2000s.  Okay, his films are not art, but he is a funny guy.  No matter how stupid you might think the character or premise, there are some laughs in his films.  Ferrell has made a lot of films: Hits, misses and outright bombs. I am not be a super fan, some of his films I’ve never seen and some I’ve hated, but Old School and Semi-Pro are really funny.  Everything Must Go was not a comedy, just a very downbeat drama, but he was very good in that film.

Ferrell works best with a very strong straight man, someone who is the normal guy, or at least more normal. Ferrell plays the earnest guy, usually well-intended, but a clueless mess. Ferrell is now in his early 50s, that’s an interesting time for a guy who appeals to a mostly younger audience. His audience is aging quickly, so it I’m curious about his career focus to and upcoming roles.

Old School

The film revolves around attorney Mitch (Luke Wilson), who moves into an old house next to the local university, after separating from his girlfriend.  Mitch found out she was having orgies with people she met online. Mitch’s friends, Frank (Will Farrell) and Bernard (Vince Vaughn), throw him a huge housewarming party, complete with Snoop Dog, that ends with a drunken Frank streaking down main street and Mitch receiving notice from the university dean (Jeremy Piven) that they are evicted.  The dean is actually someone the guys used to harass as a kid and who is now exacting his revenge.

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Frank’s wife encounters him streaking

Frank was already having trouble settling into his new marriage. “Frank the Tank.” makes a return appearance at the party and is kicked out by his wife and moves in with Mitch.  Mitch ends up sleeping with a high school girl from the party who is really his boss’ daughter.

Bernard comes up with the idea to turn Mitch’s house into a fraternity, as a way for Bernard to live out his “single” other life.  They recruit a bunch of socially inept college kids and a few adults not even going to college, to join their “fraternity.” The film feels like an updated Animal House. The dean begins a war on the fraternity. He bribes a student government officer to de-certify the fraternity, with a promise to help her to get in Columbia law school.

One of the fraternity pledges, an 89-year-old grandfatherly type dies during a wrestling event with two topless coeds. I know, a similar plot of Hamlet.

Mitch discovers they can appeal the closing of the fraternity by undergoing a review. This involves member of the fraternity taking tests, participating in an athletic event, a debate involving political consultant James Carvell, and a school spirit competition. The fraternity fails the competition on a technicality, but the dean’s bribe is revealed.

The film ends with Mitch moves into a new place, and the fraternity moving into the dean’s old house.

Sophomoric? Yep. Stupid? Yes. Funny? Yes. This film was directed by Todd Phillips, the John Landis of the era.

Ferrell has more of a supporting part in the film.  His Frank the Tank character is very outrageous, and so it the rest of the film, but it is managed chaos.  An entire film of Frank would not have been as effective, but in doses, the film works.

Semi-Pro

Semi-Pro lost money and had only a 22 percent favorable rating on Rottentomatoes.com. Kent Alterman, the film’s rookie director, has never directed another film.  So why is it on my list?  A film about the American Basketball Association in the 1970s, while a great subject, does not scream  “mass audience” appeal.  What I like about the film is the great vibe of the decade and a tremendous R&B soundtrack.

The ABA was a very innovative and fun league, which provided direct competition to the NBA.  The ABA had flair, a red, white and blue basketball, the three-point shot and wild clothes and big Afro hair styles.  In the ABA, there were a few successful teams and the rest struggled to make payroll.  The ABA and NBA competed for players, driving up salaries and pushing some teams to the brink of bankruptcy. In the end, the NBA agreed to merge with the ABA, provided the weaker teams cease play.  Semi-Pro takes place during the final ABA season.

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Team owner Jackie Moon

Ferrell stars as Jackie Moon, owner, coach and power forward of the Flint Tropics, a marginal team in the final days of the ABA.  Moon is a below average basketball player, but a highly motivated marketer of the team.  Attendance is lousy, but that doesn’t stop Moon from many gimmicks and promotions, many of which have disastrous results. One of example is the hippie dude who sinks a lucky full-court shot for $10,000 which Moon can’t afford to pay.  Moon struck it rich by recording a song that he wrote, “Love Me Sexy” and used the royalties to purchase the Tropics, a marginal ABA team.

If Moon can get move up in the standing, there is a possibility of the Tropics being one of the four teams absorbed into the NBA when the league folds. Moon swings a deal for teammate Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), giving up their washing machine. An additional requirement is increased game attendance, which gets Moon to stage even more outrageous promotions, including wrestling with a bear in a cage at mid-court. The bear escapes.

Monix has an old girlfriend in Flint, Lynn (Maura Tierney), who he tries to reconnect with.  Upset after a team loss, he breaks the window of a police car. Lynn bails him out of jail and even helps drain his knee. So, there is some chemistry remaining between them.

The players on the team want Monix to take over as coach, because Moon is a lousy coach.  Monix gets the team to work harder, and actually practice basketball, instead of practicing dance moves in sea creature costumes under Moon’s supervision.  Monix’s work pays off, the team moves out of the bottom of the standings.

Lynn attends one of their games, so Monix pursues her, and naturally wins her over.  In the meantime, attendance is way up, as Moon increases the nutty promotions, including the bear wrestling event.  The bear escapes from the cage and is loose in the coliseum.

Even with their hard work, the ABA league commissioner tells Moon that the team won’t be part of the NBA because Flint is not a big enough media market.  A depressed Moon confesses to the team that he stole his only hit song, the money from which he used to buy the Tropics franchise.  The one good thing Moon does is to trade his star player to a rival team, the Spurs, that will go to the NBA.

In the final game of the season, and the franchise history, the Tropics will play the Spurs, which Moon hypes the game as the “Megabowl.”

The Tropics play a bad first half, with Moon becoming injured. While he is unconscious, Moon visits his dead mother in heaven, where she gives him a secret weapon to use in the game.  In the second half, the team plays with renewed confidence.  Moon unveils the secret weapon, the ally-oop, which has never been done in basketball before. Using the alley-oop, the Tropics stage a comeback and win the game.  With the Tropics defunct, Moon is given a job to work in the NBA, and he actually starts paying the hippie who won the $10,000.

Was this really a bad movie? It has a low brow charm, in large part in capturing the feel of the 1970s and the struggles of a poor basketball team in the charismatic ABA.

Jackie Moon is the star of the film and his character’s behavior does go off the rails at times, which hurts the impact.  With a more experienced director, Ferrell could have been reeled in a bit and a re-balancing of characters.  Ferrell is stronger with surrounding characters who add normal behavior to balance the scenes.  The other approach is for all the characters to be abnormal, for this to be a farce, which is was not.

Why these films?

What makes these two films better or different from other Will Ferrell films?  The Anchorman, Daddy’s Home, The Other Guys and Talledega Nights films are more popular and successful films.  You get goofy, outrageous characters in most of his films. I find his more effective characters to be tethered to reality, but mostly swirling around it. In all the goofiness, the tether gives them that thread of reality, that human vulnerability.  Secondarily, it is also the story that he wraps himself in and the cleverness of the film.

I like both films for different reasons.  Old School is a better directed and acted film, but Semi-Pro has many very enjoyable moments.


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