Ferrell’s star vehicles explore the pseudo-masculinity of the modern American male: The premium put on “toughness” and “macho” when the average guy’s domain is in front of his television. The political element underlying his sports movies like Kicking and Screaming (Ferrell as a hybrid-driving soccer dad who channels his inner Ditka), Talladega Nights (the villain is a French Nascar driver), and Blades of Glory (Ron Burgundy on skates) is the notion that the American male fights his domestication by pouring his energy into sports fandom, creating this extremely screwed up idea of what “manly” really is. Real men aren’t caring, nurturing dads; they win at all costs. Real men ain’t intlektual, and they sure ain’t no fancy pants. Ferrell’s idea seems to be that that the farther men get from actual physicality or real risk-taking, the more he overcompensates for his domestication—be it through petty competition, politically sanctioned homophobia, proud anti-intellectualism, or just simply too much cologne. In other words, we transformed from Reagan Democrats into Bush Republicans.
Ferrell has pinned down the roots of this transformation to the 1970’s. Ron Burgundy is a man’s man who couldn’t give a damn about his flab—only sissy boys would actually work out because true macho is all about confidence. Semi Pro’s Jackie Moon is the Mark Cuban version of Burgundy. Moon made some quick money off a hit disco song (“Love Me Sexy”), and decides that he’ll be the Sly to the Family Stone of an ABA franchise. The movie basically becomes Major League with fros, afro, vanilla, and otherwise.
As usual with a Ferrell comedy, there’s a potentially brilliant set up. The setting is Flint, Michigan—why the hell else set the movie in Flint, if not to conjure the industrial decay and, dare we say, “bitter” frustration at the decline of the American industrial base. It’s not just the easy gag about the “Flint Tropics”; the film’s opening has a real end-of-the-empire vibe. The boys hang out at The Kremlin Bar; at home, they play Russian Roulette, like the fellas from The Deer Hunter. The Tropics’ gym looks like a dingy World War II hangar; Moon claims that he’s had the most influence on Flint, “with the possible exception of Henry Ford.”
But, as Ferrell’s movie have increasingly done over the last five years, the premise goes nowhere. The set piece is Jackie wrestling a bear, which doesn’t really work because it’s random and out of character—Jackie Moon is all bluster; he’d never actually do anything dangerous. There’s an extended puke scene that lacks the South Park metacriticism. Way too much time is devoted to Woody Harrelson and Maura Tierney’s love story, which is Tom Berenger in Major League by way of White Men Can’t Jump.
Comedically, Ferrell seems to be going for something iconic as Major League, but Jackie Moon offers nothing as distinctive as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Moon is simply every other Will Ferrell flab-flashing character in John Stockton shorts—and no amount of media blitz or cross promotion is going to change that. There’s some semi-satirical moments, like when Ferrell foreshadows the excesses of Stern era cartoonishness by dawning Sea Horse costumes and announcing, “This is the future of basketball! Get used to it!” But, on the whole, Ferrell squanders the Flintian premise, doesn’t create an iconic character, and doesn’t add anything new to his essays on the American male. Perhaps the only thing he gets right about the ABA’s legacy is that of the alley oop, a staple of this year’s National Champions.