By Dwight K. Brown, NNPA Newswire Fil Critic
Young people can’t jump! In your face, Millennials! Step back, hipsters, because black Baby Boomers are taking the court in Uncle Drew.
The genesis of this heart-warming sports comedy was a Pepsi Max commercial that evolved into a YouTube series that has been viewed 100M times. The webisodes starred Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving as an aged basketball player who shows the youngbloods that he’s still got game. Commercial to videos, to a feature film…
The setting is Harlem, New York. Rucker Park at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Blvd. had its first basketball tournament in 1946, which was started by community activist Holcombe Rucker, who organized youth basketball games. Holcombe raised money to help over 300 kids go to college. Back in the day, when black folks couldn’t play in the NBA, they gathered in parks like Rucker’s for street basketball. This legendary Harlem location became a mecca for Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others. Tupac Shakur’s iconic film Above the Rim was shot at Rucker.
These days, Dax (Lil Rel Howery), a diminutive streetball team coach and Foot Locker salesman, has a great team. His roster is headed by the 6’ 9”, overly self-confident and good-looking Casper (Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic power forward). Casper and the boys treat their coach like a sugar daddy, demanding expensive basketball shoes. Though he can’t afford them, he acquiesces. Dax gets even less respect from his girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish), who publicly emasculates him.
Dax’s deepest inferiority complex dates back to a fateful basketball game when he was blocked, while trying to make a do-or-die shot, by the very spiteful Mookie (Nick Kroll, TV’s Big Mouth and the film Loving). Mookie runs an opposing streetball team, and before you can say “Time out,” he mooches Casper and the rest of Dax’s team. Compounding the degradation, Jess throws her man out and hooks up with Mookie. Beaten but not broken, Dax tries to start another team. Hearing folklore about a mythical 70-year-old Rucker Park player named Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving), who still has some game left in his geriatric legs, the little coach goes on a quest.
Dax finds Drew. Drew comes onboard. The two journey across the country to piece together the legend’s old crew: Preacher (Chris Webber, five-time NBA All-star power forward/center with the Sacramento Kings) is a reverend who’s bullied by his volatile wife Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie, former WNBA MVP center for the Los Angeles Sparks). Lights (Reggie Miller, Hall of Fame shooting guard for the Indiana Pacers) is almost legally blind. Boots (Nate Robinson, 5’9” NBA veteran point guard and current BIG 3 star) is wheelchair-bound in a nursing home and being looked after by his granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash, Survivor’s Remorse and In Contempt). And, the gigantic Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal, 4-time NBA Champion center and Hall of Famer) teaches martial arts. The team gathers, heads back to NYC, enters a Rucker’s Classic $100,000 prize tournament and is on the rebound.
This intermittently funny PG-13 buddy movie never attempts the sidesplitting outrageousness, searing graphic language or wickedly oddball situations of Girls Trip. However, screenwriter Jay Longino (Skiptrace) and director Charles Stone III (Drumline) have several alley-oop weapons in their arsenal:
- The movie is cast well: Lil Rey Howery, who stole scenes in Get Out as the sidekick, presents a vulnerable, likable and animated persona (a la Kevin Hart) and he’s pretty fluid with his rapid-fire self-deprecating banter. Howery gets a major assist from Tiffany Haddish, who mugs for the camera like she is an applause-hungry comedy actress. Nick Kroll, as the cunning rival, is equally hysterical, especially when he mimics Dax. The basketball veterans are surprisingly charismatic both on and off the court: Miller and those daring three-pointers give you butterflies. Shaq’s sense of humor peaks in a hospital scene when he is more than willing to let his flimsy hospital gown fly open and expose a full moon. Apparently, he’s better at clowning than free throws. Lisa Leslie’s comic timing is on the money.
- For a movie that lasts 103 minutes, there are no obvious lapses in the rhythm (editors Jeff Freeman, Ted; and Sean Valla). The music blends urban beats and old-school R&B (composer Christopher Lennertz) artfully. The cinematographer (Crash) shoots comedy, hijinks and basketball games with a perceptive eye.
- Basketball resonates with both the young and old. On the surface, it piques the competitive nature in players—amateurs and professional. At its most primal level—on neighborhood playgrounds, in public parks and schoolyards—it brings people together, helps creates friendships and can provide a supportive surrogate family.
- The likable characters draw you into their generation gap conflicts: Drew puts an 8-track music cassette in the dashboard of his orange van to blast some soul music. Perplexed, Dax takes a look at the cassette and asks, “Is that a Game Boy?” Watching the old dudes lay wisdom on the young turks is endearing; Drew tells Dax: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’ take.”
Charles Stone III knows how to milk the mixed emotions from the cast. You empathize with the dejected Dax: “I loved basketball, but it never loved me back.” The bad blood between Drew and Big Fella adds an undercurrent of hostility. Stone humorously choreographs a throw-down dance scene in a nightclub where the elder basketball players show us some spritely, synchronized moves. He also entertainingly blends the touches of pathos with the comic moments right up to the buzzer. When the comedy wanes, like the Knicks always do in the third quarter, the love of the game elbows in and prevails.
Bring your kids to see this good-hearted sports/comedy and they will laugh and learn three overriding lessons: 1. Basketball can bring communities together. 2. Never give up or define your future by one mistake. 3. Older people may have one foot in the grave, but that other one can still kick some ass.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at DwightBrownInk.com.