Less than two minutes into its run time, Semi-Tough showed me something I’ve never seen in a feature film before. Unfortunately, that something was Brian Denehey’s bare ass, which honestly didn’t rank very high on my cinematic must-see list. That was far from the last surprise Semi-Tough had in store for me. Over the next hour and forty-odd minutes, I bore witness to such peculiarities as Robert Preston crawling around an office on all fours, Kris Kristofferson attempting to pass himself off as a comedic lead and Burt Reynolds offering sexual favors to German chanteuse Lotte Lenya in exchange for her not shoving her fingers up his nose.
You might reasonably assume that a film packed with this much weirdness and Denehey flesh would be interesting, if not entertaining. I sorely wish that were so, but Semi-Tough pulls of the rare feat of being bizarre and boring at the same time. I imagine the filmmakers pitching the suits a movie that “does for football what M.A.S.H. did for the Army.” That might be a noble aim, if not for the fact that M.A.S.H. contained considerably more football than does Semi-Tough.
Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson star as Billy Clyde and Shake, pro football’s most dominant running back and receiver, respectively. Now, I understand that professional athletes had longer careers back in the day, but both leads were a ripe old 41 when Semi-Tough hit theaters in 1977. The 2002 Raiders notwithstanding, buying these two well-kept but visibly middle-aged dudes as the cream of the NFL (or at least its fictional, licensing-fee-free equivalent) requires considerable suspension of disbelief.
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Next up, we meet the owner’s comely daughter Barbara Jane (Jill Clayburgh), childhood pal and current roommate of Billy Clyde and Shake. As Barbara Jane explains to her dad, she’s not sleeping with either of them, so there’s nothing weird about their living arrangement (Dad somewhat creepily replies that he’d be more comfortable with it if she really were boffing one of the guys). We leave the rest of the team behind as this trio tools around town while engaging in inane conversations that were presumably intended as witty repartee.
So far, so good, or at least not so bad. We seem to be settling into the rhythms of a dumb football comedy with a potential romantic triangle subplot. And then things take a turn for the weird, as the film’s middle third inexplicably veers into a broad satire of the New Age self-improvement fad of the late ‘70s. Turns out Shake has recently discovered himself (or “got it,” in the parlance of the film) with the help of oily guru Bert Convy, whose primary path to enlightenment involves repeatedly calling his pupils “assholes.” As Billy Clyde and Barbara Jane make separate efforts to understand their friend’s conversion and “get it” themselves, Semi-Tough tumbles into a series of grotesqueries of wacky ‘70s soul-seekers indulging in treatments with goofy names like “pelfing.” This is where we’re treated to the sights of esteemed song and dance man Robert Preston trying to find his inner child by “creeping” around his office like an infant, and of Kurt Weill muse Lotte Lenya hamming it up as a sadistic massage therapist. 1977 made sensible people do some strange things.
Hey, remember football? It’s a movie about football. We will indeed return to the gridiron before movie’s end, but first we’ll have to follow up the interminable New Age sequence with some slightly less painful romantic comedy. Somewhere in amongst the pelfing and the assholes, Shake and Barbara Jane get engaged, which forces Billy Clyde to realize that he’s always kind of hoped it would be him who eventually hooked up with the boss’s daughter. From here on out, “Semi-Tough” becomes pretty standard rom-com fare, with a ‘70s-sized helping of existential angst on the side. This final third is a bit easier to take, partially because of the lowered expectations of what went before, and partially because of Clayburgh’s effervescent performance. Throughout the film, she’s much better than Semi-Tough deserves. Blandly obnoxious as they may be, Shake and Billy Clyde at least have good taste in women.
And then, out of nowhere, it’s a football movie again. The boys from Miami suddenly remember there’s a Super Bowl to be played, so we get a few minutes of pre-game build-up (including one of the film’s few truly funny moments, a media interview in which Billy Clyde swaps self-help tips with “Dallas” team captain Carl Weathers), followed by the inevitable Big Game. The execution of this sequence is as lackluster as everything that went before it, with Billy Clyde playing miserably in the first half, then rebounding in the third quarter to lead the team to a remarkably tension-free come-from-behind victory. “
A football comedy that’s nearly devoid of football and comedy, Semi-Tough ranks among the low points in Michael Ritchie’s spotty career as a director of sports movies. Sure, the man helmed the original Bad News Bears, but his subsequent track record includes Wildcats, The Scout and the Robert Redford skiing epic Downhill Racer. Perhaps the film’s only redeeming quality, other than strong acting by Clayburgh, is how much it made me appreciate Norm MacDonald’s spot-on Burt Reynolds impression. His whole “Celebrity Jeopardy” character from SNL could have been cribbed from Burt’s performance in this movie. As ever, Burt’s reasonably charming here, but it remains unfathomable that this beefy, greasy guy was once a romantic lead, let alone the definitive sex symbol for an entire generation. But like I said, 1977 made sensible people do some strange things.
- Ira Brooker