Semi-Tough follows the story of pro-football friends Billy Clyde Puckett, and Marvin 'Shake' Tiller, who also have a third roommate, Barbara Jane Bookman. The two men vie for her affection throughout the film, but Shake becomes self-confident after completing a self awareness course called "B.E.A.T." Bert Convy plays the role of Friedrich Bismark, the leader of B.E.A.T. Barbara Jane enrolls in B.E.A.T. training in order to "get it" and be closer to Shake, but does not have a good experience in the training. Billy Clyde takes the training surreptitiously with Barbara Jane, and fakes "getting it" in order to impress her. He later intervenes when she is about to marry Shake, and they admit their feelings for each other.
The film received mixed reception. Reviewers praised its parodies of the est training, Werner Erhard, and other new age movements such as Rolfing. However, other reviews criticized the script and direction of the film, noting that some of director Ritchie's previous films had more of a personal tone. Still other reviews lamented the film's departure from the novel Semi-Tough, which dealt more with football and less with the new age movement.
Barbara Jane is determined to make it work with Shake, so she attends B.E.A.T. in an effort to "get it." However, at the end of the training session, she is worn out from Bismark's "sadistic abuse, pious drivel and sheer double talk." Barbara Jane also feels guilty that she did not "get it." Shake is insistent that the training has had proven results for him, noting that he has not missed a football pass since completing B.E.A.T. Billy Clyde Puckett also has feelings for Barbara Jane Bookman, and enrolls in B.E.A.T. in order to understand what she is going through. While participating in the training, Billy Clyde is shown coping with the seminar rules forbidding going to the bathroom during the training. For a time Puckett pretends he underwent a conversion to Bismark's way of thinking. While Barbara Jane and Shake are at the altar about to be married, the minister turns to Friedrich Bismark and gives him some advice on how he can avoid capital gains tax in his business. Billy Clyde Puckett ends up exposing the movement's shallow side, and rescues Barbara Jane from both B.E.A.T. and her impending marriage to Shake. After leaving the wedding together, Barbara Jane and Billy Clyde Puckett reveal their feelings for each other.
Burt Reynolds began training with Kris Kristofferson to get in shape before film production. Before work began on the film, actor Bert Convy attended one of Werner Erhard's est training sessions in order to prepare for his role as B.E.A.T. seminar leader Friedrich Bismark. Pro football stars were hired to give realism to the film, including John Matuszak, Paul Hornung, Joe Kapp, and Ed "Too Tall" Jones. The football scenes were shot at the Miami Orange Bowl.
The film grossed USD$22.94 million at the box office. Semi-Tough was later developed as a pilot episode for a potential television series on a similar theme, and was a candidate to be picked up in the fall of 1980. The 1980 Semi-Tough pilot episode starred Bruce McGill playing Burt Reynolds' original role, with co-star David Hasselhoff. The film has since been released in both VHS and DVD formats.
The film includes a parody of the Werner Erhard and Erhard Seminars Training, with B.E.A.T. as a stand-in for est. In American Film Now, Friedrich Bismark is simply described as "the Werner Erhard character." The Grove Book of Hollywood describes Bert Convy as a "Werner Erhard-lookalike," in his portrayal of Friedrich Bismark. Barbara Jane Bookman's guilty feelings for not "getting it" after completing her B.E.A.T. seminar are seen as a reference to: "how creeds like est put nonbelievers on the defensive." The book also notes that: "The film captures the peculiar mixture of spirituality and pragmatism that surrounded est," and also describes the minister's capital gains tax advice to Friedrich Bismark at Shake's wedding as "sardonic." A 1977 review in TIME Magazine refers to Friedrich Bismark's B.E.A.T. as "an est-like movement," and notes: "the Ritchie-Bernstein version of an est seminar is done with marvelous malice." Psychiatry and the Cinema characterizes the film as a "devastating parody" of the est training.
After Semi-Tough's release in 1977, Bert Convy was contacted by a number of est followers, as well as by Werner Erhard. After Convy appeared on The Tonight Show and discussed his experiences attending Erhard Seminars Training in preparation for his role as Friedrich Bismark, he received a letter from Erhard stating: "it would be great for us to get together." Of the est seminar itself, Convy recalled that when another attendee complained of a headache during the course, the group leader told him to "experience it," and when another attendee wet his pants, he was told to "experience the warmth." In a scene from the film, a woman exclaims to Friedrich Bismark in the middle of a seminar: "I peed in my pants and it felt good. During actual filming on Semi-Tough, Convy received a late-night phone call from actress Valerie Harper, known in Hollywood as a devoted student of Werner Erhard. She related to Convy that Erhard was "pleased" with the role, and she wished him success in the film. However, Convy suspected that her real reason for calling was to subtly pressure him to go easy on his parody of Erhard in the film.
The press caught on to the satire of Erhard in the film, and gave these sections of the film positive reviews. The Wall Street Journal criticized the film, save for its satirical nature: "The movie isn't much - an erratic ramble - But it has some pleasant moments, and a delicious send-up of the self-improvement guru Werner Erhard. The Charlotte Observer praised Bert Convy's portrayal of the self-help guru Frederick Bismark, and called Convy: ".. a hilariously smug consciousness-raiser with a more than passing resemblance to EST's Werner Erhard." Magill's Survey of Cinema described the film as a chiding of American "religious fads and philosophies," and The Grove Book of Hollywood called it a "cheeky film" that poked fun at the "est" craze and other human potential fads. TIME Magazine called the film one of 1977's best comedies, and also noted that it was: "without a doubt the year's most socially useful film."
The film did not receive a positive review in Variety, where the reviewer commented: "Semi-Tough begins as a bawdy and lively romantic comedy about slap happy pro football players, then slows down to a too-inside putdown of contemporary self-help programs." Variety noted that stars Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh were "excellent" within the "zigzag" script and poor direction they were given. Michael Costello of Allmovie also criticized the script, and wrote: "While much of this is quite predictable, a number of the jokes score, Burt Reynolds works his charm overtime, and Jill Clayburgh and Kris Kristofferson are effective as comic foils." In American Film Now, author James Monaco commented on director Michael Ritchie's directing style in Semi-Tough, stating that in the film Ritchie was "speaking in a professional voice." Monaco noted that Ritchie's prior films evoked a more personal tone, and had more of a sense of wonder than Semi-Tough. Chapman's In Search of Stupidity characterized the film as: "Possibly one of the best movies ever made by Burt Reynolds," and described the film's parody of est as accurate and amusing. Leonard Maltin criticized parts of the script, stating that Reynolds' charm filled in for the film's other deficiencies. Hunsberger criticized Ritchie's screenplay adaptation in his work The Quintessential Dictionary, complaining that the game of football should have supported the film as a plot device, but was instead left to the side in favor of other stories.
|Burt Reynolds||Billy Clyde Puckett|
|Kris Kristofferson||Marvin 'Shake' Tiller|
|Jill Clayburgh||Barbara Jane Bookman|
|Robert Preston||Big Ed Bookman|
|Bert Convy||Friedrich Bismark|
|Roger E. Mosley||Puddin Patterson Sr.|
|Lotte Lenya||Clara Pelf|
|Richard Masur||Phillip Hooper|
|Carl Weathers||Dreamer Tatum|
|Brian Dennehy||T.J. Lambert|