Goofy Drew a Basketball Comedy Winner
I can’t say Uncle Drew is a good movie. I can’t say it is a well-acted one, either. I can’t say Jay Longino’s (Skiptrace) script does anything that’s surprising or that veteran director Charles Stone III’s (Drumline) handling of the material feels electric or alive in ways that break the redemptive sports-comedy mold. What I can say is that Uncle Drew made me laugh, sometimes out loud, more often than not frequently. I can also say that, for as painfully simplistic and trite as the narrative proved to be, for some reason I was emotionally invested in what was going to happen to all of the characters populating this story, and while the outcome was never in doubt I still sat there in my theatre seat rooting for this team of geriatric misfits all the same.
After his entire squad, headlined by budding superstar Casper (Aaron Gordon), is stolen from him by unscrupulous rival Mookie (Nick Kroll), Foot Locker shoe salesman and basketball aficionado Dax (Lil Rel Howery) comes to the realization he’s got a major problem. He spent his $5,000 life savings paying the entrance fee to participate in Harlem’s annual Rucker Classic street ball tournament, the grand prize for winning a cool $100,000. But thanks to Mookie, Dax has no team and thus zero chance to win. Making matters worse, his materialistic girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish) has also left him and who do you think she’s shacking up with instead? Mookie.
Things change when Dax has a chance encounter with the fabled Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving). A Harlem legend, this street ball titan has been the talk of the neighborhood for five full decades. Stories of his literally breaking another player’s ankle with the speed of his crossover and another of him dunking over opponents with a basketball in his left hand and a ham sandwich in his right became mythological parables of greatness handed down like the campfire tales of old, and many a man sitting in the barbershop proclaims loudly Drew would have been the greatest of all-time had he not mysteriously disappeared back in 1968. Now Dax is sitting right next to him, and this grey-bearded old man hasn’t appeared to have lost a single step. More importantly, he’s willing to come back into the spotlight and play at the Rucker Classic one last time, but only if his former teammate Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal), Lights (Reggie Miller), Preacher (Chris Webber) and Boots (Nate Robinson) are allowed to join him.
It’s as silly and as nonsensical as it sounds, all these seventy-something former basketball greats heading back to the street ball court for one last run hoping to show all the young whippersnappers how the game is supposed to be played in the process. As things progress Dax learns the value of friendship and family, Drew finds the strength to apologize to those he’s wronged while others search within in order to be able to selflessly forgive those who did them an injustice back in the team’s heyday. It’s crowd-pleasing stuff, and while nothing out of the ordinary happens the film itself is still just warmhearted and endearing enough to make the sort of comforting impression most viewers are going to find difficult to resist.
The gimmick here, of course, is the sight of all of these current and former NBA greats (and WNBA superstar in the form of a very game and suitably hilarious Lisa Leslie) all donning layers of old age makeup to portray elderly ballers ready to show just how much game they’ve got left in their collective tanks. Inspired by a series of popular commercials featuring Irving as the title character, Longino’s script has a reverence and a respect for the game of basketball that’s obvious, and while many of the central gags themselves might be a little bit tired (i.e. needing to go to the bathroom frequently, turning the heat up in the van in the middle of summer, creaky bones, having a ready supply of Viagra; stuff like that), the collection of athletes giving them life is having so much fun most don’t come off near as obnoxiously insufferable as they otherwise might have.
Not that Irving and company show a great deal of emotive range. They’re all playing archetypes of one sort of another, and anytime the movies asks them to dig a little deeper in order to display some real human emotion the results aren’t exactly spectacular. There’s a scene during the last third between Irving and O’Neal that’s particularly troublesome, the two athletes incapable of bringing the requisite emotional honesty to their dialogue that could have made Drew and Big Fella’s heartfelt chat mean something substantive. There’s also a sequence during the film’s climactic stretch where Dax is forced into the game for reasons left unstated here that is just too silly to resonate, everything building to a moment of sports comedy cliché that’s decidedly underwhelming.
But as gag movies go this one is difficult to dislike. Get Out scene-stealer Howery is the real deal, the actor giving an honest to goodness multidimensional performance even if the film itself doesn’t require him to do so, making Stone and Longino’s decision to anchor the story on him and not on Irving’s Drew a smart one. As for those NBA and WNBA stars, their fun is infectious, their spirited (and likely mostly ad-libbed) trash-talking back-and-forth dialogues frequently providing the feature with its biggest laughs. While some jokes can go a little far, and while not nearly the slam dunk I’m sure many fans were hoping for, a soft jumper off the glass making a delicate “swish” sound still scores two points, and in this case that’s more than enough for Uncle Drew to win this particular comedy game.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)