Had the people making this comedy been more judicious about picking their satirical targets, Semi-Tough might have become a semi-classic, because the actors and behind-the-scenes players were all at the height of their considerable powers. Unfortunately, the movie is a muddle because of indecision about whether to focus on the seedy side of pro football or the über-’70s trend of “est” training.
The picture starts out like gangbusters, introducing unlikely roommates Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds), Marvin Tiller (Kris Kristofferson), and Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh). Billy Clyde and Marvin are the star players for a Southern football team, which is owned by Barbara Jane’s wacky daddy, Big Ed Bookman (Robert Preston). Sharing space platonically because they’ve been friends since childhood, Billy Clyde, Marvin, and Barbara Jane are funny, hip, and neurotic, serious about sports but irreverent about everything else. As the story progresses, Marvin and Barbara Jane become a couple, which causes Billy Clyde to realize he’s in love with Barbara Jane.
The movie also introduces wild characters like an oily PR man (Richard Masur), a psychotic lineman (Brian Dennehy), and a blissed-out Russian field-goal kicker (Ron Silver). On and off the field, the football stuff is great, with debauched parties, philosophical locker-room interviews, and tense practice sessions. However, the movie gets sidetracked when Marvin falls under the spell of Friedrick Bismark (Bert Convy), the smoothie behind “B.E.A.T. therapy,” a campy spin on “est.”
In real life, Erhard Seminars Training (‘est”) was a therapeutically dubious fad in which patrons paid exorbitant fees to sit in hotel conference rooms for marathon character-building sessions without bathroom breaks. “B.E.A.T.” takes the extremes of “est” even further; Bismark labels all his followers assholes and spews empty psychobabble (“There aren’t any answers because there aren’t any questions”). Convy, a ’70s-TV stalwart best known for hosting game shows, is actually very good in Semi-Tough, revealing the savvy slickster behind the spiritual-guru façade. Like the football material, the “B.E.A.T.” stuff is great, but it belongs in its own movie. Complicating matters even further, the romantic triangle between the protagonists never really connects, since Marvin transforms into such a B.E.A.T.-addicted space case that he’s easily outmatched by down-to-earth Billy Clyde.
That said, Clayburgh, Kristofferson, and Reynolds are wonderful, as is Preston; the scene in which Preston and Reynolds scamper around Big Ed’s office on their hands and knees because Big Ed is experimenting with “crawling therapy” is terrific. In fact, there’s so much to like in Semi-Tough that it’s dismaying to report how widely the film’s director, the sometimes-great comedy specialist Michael Ritchie, misses his mark. Still, viewers willing to treat the picture like a sampler platter will be amply rewarded: It may not be a proper cinematic meal, but it’s certainly the equivalent to a bunch of tasty snacks.