Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
I think if any filmmaker ever thought about turning a commercial into a full-length movie, they could learn a thing or two from Charles Stone III (“Drumline”) the director of “Uncle Drew,” which is based on a character from a slew of popular 30 second Pepsi ads. You hear that premise and automatically rush to judgement: ‘How far can they really stretch this?’ I suppose if you have a cast that’s game for anything, and a script that makes people laugh - anything is possible.
“Uncle Drew” is, more or less, one giant comedy stacked with product placement: (Nike, Bud Light, Jordan’s, Pepsi) but it doesn’t feel cheap - rather - the harmless entry into this cheesy sub genre embraces its core values, and the fundamental elements of basketball. Plus, watching some of the game’s dynamite players, hunkered down in old-man drag, trying to impersonate their grandfathers is somehow satisfying.
So if you’ve seen the trailer, then you basically already know the premise: A group of crotchety, arthritic past-timers are being recruited for one last hurrah. The ringleader is “Get Out’s” Lil Rel Howery as Drax, a Foot Locker employee who’s taken out his life savings to compete in the Ruckerball tournament, the Super Bowl playoffs of street basketball that grants $100,000 to the winning team. After his star pupil bails on him for local hot-shot Mookie (Nick Kroll doing his usual obnoxious shtick, that’s funny until it isn’t), and his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish proving again that “Girls Trip” wasn’t a fluke) kicks him out of the house, it would seem the once promising chances of taking home the top prize in the tournament have faded.
Cue Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving - a substantially better athlete than a performer) who trickles through city after city without so much a purpose, just to preach his love for basketball. Legend tells that Drew, back in the 60s’, was the greatest player who ever stepped foot on the court (as a gimmick, the first scene features a fun send-up of faux interviews with retired players commenting on his godly status). And watching Drew school a bunch of wannabe players - while teaching them life lessons along the way - in a friendly game of pick-up, is the only convincing Drax needs to ignite his tournament aspirations. The once vanished icon, has now resurfaced to whip the latest generation of “Young Bloods” into shape.
Of course, they’ll need a team and some of NBA’s finest step up to the plate; there’s Chris Webber as Preacher, a bible thumper scared of his own wife (played by WNBA legend Lisa Leslie); Reggie Miller as Lights, a legally blind three-pointer shooter that’s got some gas left in the tank; Nate Robinson as a wheelchair-bound point guard named Boots; and Shaq as a bruting karate instructor who definitely has some old beef with Drew. Together, these five have just the right chemistry to take on Mookie’s team in the finals. And while none of these agile legends can really ‘act’ in the traditional sense, with a script this broad and lighthearted they really don’t need to.
And that’s what “Uncle Drew” is: A flimsy, predictable, but sweetly natured summer flick, that has a heart worth rooting for. Never did I once believe Irving, with his muscular build and bulging physique, was a 75 year old-man (and with the moves he was sporting on the court, I doubt anyone else did either). Not to mention, the basketball sequences felt like they were, not coincidentally, filmed for a commercial - lacking the sort-of ‘you-have-to-make-this-shot’ urgency.
Another glaring blemish is the prosthetic makeup, as it doesn’t look as sharp as the filmmakers would think it is, making you wonder how anyone in the picture could believe these five “older” men could accomplish some of these stats. But at least Howery has enough quick-witted comebacks to sustain the long-drive of the films slower moments (and has to ski through a forced romantic subplot between Boot’s granddaughter played just fine by Erica Ash).
All plot discrepancies aside, “Uncle Drew” is a best case scenario type situation: It doesn’t deserve to have this type of credibility, yet it gets a pass because, against my better judgement, I laughed at the humor. Pay attention to a dance club sequence towards the second half of the film, that features an old-school breakdancing showdown which is just silly enough that it works. Signaling that if you can get past the low-ball shenanigans, dingy makeup, and corporate synergy, an enjoyable film waits on the other side. Look, “Uncle Drew” was never going to be a slam dunk, but it goes down like a three pointer with ease.