When Steve Martin was playing different kinds of wild and crazy guys in the 1970s, he was playing different absurd concepts of the wild and crazy guy, including a stylized version of himself as a white-suited stand-up with an arrow through his head.
When Will Ferrell plays wild and crazy guys in his alternate-comic universe of the '70s, whether as the preening San Diego TV anchor in Anchorman or, in Semi-Pro, daffy Jackie Moon, the owner-player-coach of the Flint, Mich., Tropics (the worst team in the American Basketball Association), he becomes a wild and crazy guy from somewhere deep in his belly, at least for the movie's running time.
When Martin got "happy feet," it was a delirious routine; part of the joke was in realizing that Martin, so incredibly graceful and limber, was doing something that flighty as a joke.
But when Ferrell's Moon wiggles his arms like a one-man stadium wave caught in a riptide, the star really becomes a man who's lost control of his limbs, and he sweeps you up in his euphoria. He operates as much from his ample gut as Martin does from his well-stocked brain, but somehow gets at the same destination of sublime silliness.
The key to Ferrell's Moon, a one-hit pop wonder who uses the profits from his smash "Love Me Sexy" to buy his own team, is a surfeit of energy that frizzes his hair and sets his eyes aglitter. His innate talent is that of an impresario. He comes up with one nutty promotional notion after another, from the mundane Corn Dog Night to a splashy floor show on the hardwoods, with himself costumed like the beaming sun on a Raisin Bran box and his players as tropical creatures, including seahorses.
Ferrell's capacity for belief in numbskull characters makes him perfect to play that one-in-a-million dreamer who took it literally when someone said, "Dream on." For Moon, it's become not just a principle but a spiritual thing, whether he's acting as a self-styled motivator to his teammates, or putting himself on the floor as a power forward whose skill level is suited for a grade-school gym class.
At the start of Semi-Pro, set in 1976, he feels that his ruling dream may be realized when the commissioner of the ABA calls the league's owners together to announce a merger with the NBA. The hitch is, the NBA won't let in every team.
But Moon can be a master persuader at any meeting: He has no emotional and mental check-and-balance system, so when he gets passionate, he's all-out. At Moon's insistence, each ABA team gets a shot at the NBA; all they have to do is finish in their own league's top four that season.
To show that he's serious, Moon immediately trades the team's washing machine to the Kentucky Colonels for a player who can actually play: Eddie Monix (Woody Harrelson), who wears an NBA championship ring around his neck, though he won it just warming the bench for the Boston Celtics.
The movie's plot resembles Slap Shot mixed with every great sports movie Ron Shelton ever made, including Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump (which starred Harrelson). But you can gauge how much of a burlesque Semi-Pro is by the way Harrelson - yes, quirky, unpredictable Harrelson - functions as a straight man for the rest of the movie.
While Harrelson's Monix imbues the team with discipline and wins his ex-girlfriend (Maura Tierney) back from her goofball fanboy boyfriend (Rob Corddry), the movie becomes a series of riffs on Moon's everyday practice of semi-mind over matter.
It's far from a one-man show. Writer Scot Armstrong earns his keep by filling the slapdash script with fixated personalities. Director Kent Alterman earns his by casting them with comedians or comic actors who can create a humorous ambience with a fleeting expression. He detonates big laughs with Andy Richter's quizzical smile as Moon's right-hand man, Bobby Dee, and Andre Benjamin's shriveling glare as a budding African-American superstar who runs through a series of nicknames and ends up as "Coffee Black."
Semi-Pro is so shabbily staged, shot and edited that it hardly ranks as a movie, much less a sports film, but hilarious people keep turning up in it, including Jackie Earle Haley as a stoner, Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig as a bear-handler whose main experience has been with cats, and Will Arnett and Andrew Daly as a macho-and-milquetoast team of local TV sportscasters.
The pacing and the staging are lackadaisical at best, but the virtue of this film's looseness it that is has some of the airy unpredictability of the best late-night TV comedy. One scene of a bunch of guys, including Arnett, Daly, Ferrell and Tim Meadows, playing with an empty gun, is as inventive as a scene from another look at the '70s, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, except that it doesn't go on forever - and it's funny.
That's true of the whole movie. Basketball is a tall man's game, but Semi-Pro is short and sweet. In his own way, Ferrell is doing today what Martin did 30 years ago: creating a kind of put-on comedy that invites everybody in.