For an actor famous for making essentially the same movie over and over again, the career of Will Ferrell has been marked by a rather violent fluctuation in the relative quality of his projects. None of them are original; some are still very good, and some kind of suck. I bring this up because somehow it amazes me that the comedian's last movie, Blades of Glory, could be as reasonably effective as it was, and yet here we are not quite a year later, and Semi-Pro, which on paper ought to be identical, is a dire affair indeed; very probably the worst of Ferrell's starring vehicles, I might even say.

Following what has thus far been a commercially indefatigable structure, Semi-Pro positions Ferrell as an athlete who wears silly costumes that accentuate his package, and gives him many opportunities to run around in circles and bellow at a monumentally overqualified supporting cast. The sport du jour is basketball, the setting is 1976 (his first period film since Anchorman, if I am not much mistaken), and the cast includes Andy Richter as a gee-whiz sidekick, Woody Harrelson as a has-been star, Maura Tierney as his former lover, AndrΓ© Benjamin as the undisciplined hotshot, and Will Arnett and Andrew Daly as precise replicas of Fred Willard and Jim Piddock's characters from Best in Show. The story concerns Ferrell as Jackie Moon, who runs around in tiny shorts and bellows.

I tease. There actually is a story, and it's not in Semi-Pro's best interest that this is the case. Inspired in a cock-eyed way by historical fact, the film begins in the final days of the American Basketball Association, before it was absorbed into the bigger and better-known NBA. Jackie Moon is the owner-coach-promoter-power forward for the invented Flint Tropics of Flint, Michigan, the lowest-ranked of the eight teams in the ABA. To secure his franchise's future, he vows to bring the team up to fourth place before it's too late. Egos clash and romances sputter amongst the characters surrounding him, and without much warning, the third act turns into a full-blown Inspirational Sports Movie, with the occasional Will Ferrell pratfall to keep the audience from getting too antsy. This would work a little bit better if the pratfalls were in fact funny, but Semi-Pro is cursed by an inability to construct jokes: while the drear Talladega Nights had a whole lot of fizzled misfires, this film doesn't even seem to have gags; it has instead a lot of riffing that feels like comedians getting steady on their feet before they have to step in front of an audience. Sometimes there's an obvious laugh line - hell, sometimes I even laughed - but more often, it seems like the movie is coasting on the assumption that if Will Ferrell is onscreen, then funny things must apparently be going on.

While that's occasionally true, it's much likelier at any given moment that the film is trapped in a spiral of unmotivated antics, with all the actors feeding on each others' energy but going nowhere with it. This is clearest in a surreal scene where Ferrell et al sit around playing poker, a 75-second passage of film is dedicated to Arnett's seemingly arbitrary furor at being called a "jive turkey", and the whole thing ends up as a parody of the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter. Now, I love parodies of 30-year-old films as much as anybody - I hope when Ferrell makes his sports comedy in 2010, it's about boxing, so he can get some references in about that Raging Bull picture - but it might not have been a bad thing if the parody were actually funny. Instead, the comedy begins and ends with "we're making a parody of The Deer Hunter," and that's it. I have to wonder if the given audience for a Will Ferrell comedy is actually aware that The Deer Hunter exists. I also have to nitpick that Semi-Pro is set in 1976, and the Michael Cimino film came out in 1978. But this is like complaining about the people rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

It's fascinating how much the film sabotages itself - the scene I just mentioned isn't even a particularly bad moment, just a weird one - setting up seemingly dozens of tiny moments that could only ever trip up the comedy. Much more than in any of Ferrell's previous films, we're meant to root for the characters' victory, not because we want to leave the theater cheerful, but because the story is actually meant to be honest-to-God inspiring. Broad comedy and inspiring narratives about sports underdogs turn out to be an awkward pairing, probably not surprisingly. I mean, people love Rocky, but not for its rapid-fire gags.

The film also makes a lot of simply idiotic mistakes. It's set, after all, in Flint, Michigan, a town that is almost surely known first and best and only as an economic sinkhole where nice old ladies are forced to kill bunnies for food. Not that I want to flaunt Godwin's Law, or anything, but the effect of setting a comedy in Flint in the mid-'70s is sort of like setting a comedy in Dachau, Germany in 1931. Maybe not everybody in the audience will make that connection, but given that an awfully famous filmmaker made a pretty famous documentary on the topic, it's not exactly an obscure fact. And it absolute colors every second of the movie.

Will Ferrell will march on, though. I am agnostic as to whether this is a fact worth praising. This is, after all, only the first film in his career to stumble at the box office (though it is not the first that is bad), and if Adam Sandler can have an invincible career, well at least Ferrell is occasionally amusing. Semi-Pro is bad, but it's not terrible, just kind of flaccid and aimless. When most of a comedy's heavy lifting is done by the '70s set design, flaccid and aimless is pretty much inevitable.

4/10