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Friday, February 29, 2008

Semi-Pro

Once in a while there comes along a movie you can’t help but wonder “What were they thinking?” The “they”, of course, becomes a nebulous mystery, and most of those involved in the mystery tend to want to keep it that way. “They” are a finger-pointing cesspool of writers, producers, former studio executives, agents, stars, ex-spouses of stars, ex-assistants of stars, rival studio heads, and movie critics, all fitfully assigning blame for the belly flop of a film that stinks to high heaven. Nobody wants to take any responsibility for what may have seemed like a good idea at the time but proved to be anything but. Oh sure, the movie may make gazillions of dollars but that doesn’t mean that the people in the ivory towers of Hollyweird and the folks filling the seats at their local Cineplex don’t recognize that they’ve been fed a steaming pile. It’s just that they don’t know it until after they’ve paid for it and have swallowed a big gulp of that crap.

I’m still under psychiatric treatment recovering from John Travolta’s bit of self-pleasuring called Battlefield Earth. Ironically, the second most high-profile Scientologist and anti-psychiatry proponent in America has driven who knows how many people into psychotherapy after they unsuspectingly wandered into this sci fi extravaganza expecting more than an ego-driven Travolta hidden under a rubber turtle atop his head, complete dreadlocks and nose plugs as fashion accessories.


And speaking of ego, who can forget Mariah Carey’s showcase, Glitter? This musical semi-autobiography did anything but glitter at the box office with anybody but her most devoted of fans and those with serious head injuries. How else but vanity and flexible knees can explain Ms. Carey’s ability to get this film from the page to screen?


The same can be said of Madonna’s Swept Away, directed by her husband, Guy Ritchie. In what many consider nothing more than an over-produced home movie, the singer plays an arrogant
witch with a “b” who torments the hired help and generally makes life miserable for everyone around her. Madonna’s wretched performance and the equally wretched excess of the entire production sunk a yacht and Madonna’s movie career as she has yet to return to the big screen, proving unequivocally that there is without a doubt a Supreme Being at work in the Universe. His name is Michael Lynton and he is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the man smart enough to not put Madonna in another film despite having her under contract. Bless you, Mr. Lynton. Bless you and your spawn.

Maybe it is a trend with female singers, but JLo unleashed El Cantante on an unsuspecting public this past summer as a showcase for her Skeletor lookalike husband Marc Anthony to prove that he could do more than stand-in work for The Cryptkeeper from "Tales From the Crypt." It, too, bombed with the force of a Taliban fighter in a crowded marketplace.

In all these cases the crucial element that explains these films is the sheer vanity of the stars involved. Without their previous successes behind them none would have had the clout to get this garbage made, and yet they did because there were studio execs sitting up in their air-conditioned cells somewhere who thought these ideas were good enough to invest somebody else’s money in and foist on you because this is what they thought you deserved for entertainment. Obviously, they think you have the intellect of a duck looking for the secret to longevity in the back of a Chinese restaurant.

This is what explains
Semi-Pro. The high mucky-mucks at New Line Cinema decided they would throw twenty million dollars at Will Ferrell to have him come make a movie ~ any movie ~ for their studio. It was the “any” part that was the mistake. I saw an interview with Ferrell a few days ago and he said that the inspiration for his latest film was his character’s name, Jackie Moon. Apparently, when Ferrell and his cronies sit around talking about story ideas, the genesis of the script comes from whatever the guys can find humorous about a character which fits the name they’ve decided upon for Ferrell’s character. Imagine if Herman Melville worked that way. Moby Dick would’ve been something completely different.

So, somehow, I guess Jackie Moon conjures up the idea of a basketball player, franchise owner, and singer of the dubious former hit “Love Me Sexy”. Apparently, from there it didn’t summon up very much else because the one thing missing from this venture is a plot. Well no, that’s not true. I take that back. It’s also missing the jokes which one expects to find in a Will Ferrell movie. Remember Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby? Remember Blades of Glory? Or how about Stranger Than Fiction? Well, okay, maybe not so much with Stranger Than Fiction but that’s because it was supposed to be high-brow ironic humor, and that’s not quite Will’s forte. He’s more fart joke than literary allusion joke anyway. So you’d think
Semi-Pro would be perfect for him.

It does have enough gas in it to stink up any gymnasium. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much more. Jackie is a screeching zealot for his pathetic team, the Flint (Michigan) Tropics, breathing its last in 1976 just before the American Basketball Association disappears forever and a handful of its teams are merged into the still-existing National Basketball Association. Basically, the entire movie is about Jackie’s rallying cry to keep the Tropics alive and prove their value so they will gain one of the four available slots with the NBA.

When the team mutinies over Jackie’s lousy coaching style he brings in a “star”, a former NBA benchwarmer named Monix (Woody Harrelson; Sleepwalking), who just happened to be warming that bench during his team’s one championship season. The point of this seems to be to double the box office clout of the slacker comedy genre, but all it does is double the budget of the picture because Harrelson and Ferrell don’t generate half the natural wattage of that other male comedy duo Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who might have made this a real laugh riot instead of a laugh rot.

Blame Writer Scot Armstrong (The Heartbreak Kid; School for Scoundrels) or first time Director Kent Alterman (Executive Producer of Balls of Fury and tv’s “Strangers With Candy”). Blame Ferrell and Harrelson. Even blame the supporting cast, which includes almost every second tier “correspondent” from tv’s “The Daily Show.”


Most of all point a finger at New Line’s Co-Chairs and Co-CEOs Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne. They probably deserve the biggest finger-shaking. Not only did they approve this putrid pile, they allowed it to go forward littered with enough
profanity to garner the film a solid ‘R’ rating, successfully limiting the majority of Ferrell’s biggest audience, younger teenage boys, from entry. Granted, it saved some youngster a weekend of perversity in the back of a theater balcony with Michael Jackson, but this bright move also resulted in an opening week (or should that be “weak”) gross of only $15.3 million, well below Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby ($47 million) and Blades of Glory ($33 million).

Consider
Semi-Pro the final nail in the coffin for New Line Cinema’s independence. The little studio that could, the maker of the blockbuster The Lord of the Rings series, is going to meet a wee bit better fate than the Flint Tropics, but not by much. It will now be merged with corporate sibling Warner Bros. by parent company Time-Warner Inc. as a cost-saving move. New Line will continue as a production label, but it will revert to where it began, as the resting place of low-budget crap, horror on a budget, wet tee shirt sex comedies, and all the worst you can imagine. In other words, stuff like Semi-Pro.

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