"Semi-Tough" is director Michael Ritchie's semi-funny conversion of the Dan Jenkins novel into a film lampooning the sideshow of pro football and other yahoo aspects of contemporary life.
The tale revolves around a couple of ball-players - Burt Reynolds as sly, wry Billy Clyde Puckett and Kris Kristofferson as his flaky, cosmic good buddy, Shake Tiller - and their mutual, if unlikely, tug-of-war over the boss' tart-tongued daughter, one Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh). All of which transpires en route to the Super-bowl.
Along the way, Shake, a devotee of Beat, dispatches Barbara Jane to seek weekend enlightenment at the hands of his slick insurance salesman of a guru, Friedrich Bismark. Dabblers in the human-potential movement will recognize Friedrich's real-life counterpart in est 's Werner Erhard. Friedrich drives a Rolls-Royce with "BEAT IT" plates and spouts a "Life is a shell game without a shell" philosophy.
Unfortunately, Barbara Jane doesn't "get it," and this leads Shake to doubt the potential for happiness in a "mixed" marriage - that is, a marriage in which one partner "gets it" and the other doesn't.
Billy Clyde goes the extra yard to fuel such doubts. Don't worry, he tells Shake, "No matter how many times Barbara Jane gets hitched, she looks fresh out of the gate."
Ritchie also serves up a priest who discourses on the sublime tax shelters available in this world; Robert Preston as Big Ed Bookman, Barbara Jane's daddy, who hangs Nixon's portrait knee-high and crawls around on the office floor to align himself with gravity; Lotte Lenya as the unconventional massage therapist who "pelfs" Billy Clyde, and other comic hulks.
One incongruous but especially sensitive scene evokes the warmth Ritchie demonstrated by putting Tatum O'Neill and Walter Matthau together in "Bad News Bears."
It involves a football groupie, a camp follower whom Billy Clyde sweet-talks to his room. She is the kind of large, lonely woman who frequents hotel bars for companionship, and her needs overpower her better judgement, obscuring her ability to see through the macho put-on.
Billy Clyde Puckett is a role that fits Reynolds like a shoe, and the Dallas suburbs will surely howl their approval. But Kristofferson fails to breathe much life into Shake Tiller, and should perhaps stick to playing hobo bards in teary melodramas.
"Semi-Tough" sails through high and low comic tides, with the laughs rabbit-punched throughout by appropriately earthy dialogue. It makes for a nice tranquilizer from office tensions. But amateur gridiron sociologists who perceive the futility and madness of the locker room will have to wait for some hard-nosed director to tackle, say, Peter Gent's novel, "North Dallas Forty," before they will see their view of pro football's universe on screen. Or they can always go out, pop a beer and re-read Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl."