Despite some laughs, ‘Uncle Drew’ misses and misses
Directed by: Charles Stone III
Written by: Jay Longino
Starring: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Erica Ash, and Nick Kroll
“Uncle Drew” – Basketball is a team sport, but one individual point guard stands out. He stands above all others who played before and after him.
Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving).
Don’t just take this critic’s word for it. Ask NBA greats George Gervin, Dikembe Mutombo, Jerry West, David Robinson, and Steve Nash (to name a few), as they rave about Drew’s gifts on the court during the opening moments of director Charles Stone III’s (“Drumline” (2002), “Mr. 3000” (2004)) movie “Uncle Drew”. Keep in mind that these basketball greats speak of Drew in the past tense by design. Years and years and years ago, Drew dominated the game and became a living legend, but one day, this icon suddenly disappeared from basketball.
This all changed one afternoon, when an awkward, but goodhearted recreational basketball coach named Dax (Lil Rel Howrey) looks for a new star player and randomly discovers Drew on an outdoor court. Drew – who is now 70-something and sports gray hair and a matching beard – has not lost too many steps, as he crushes a much younger man in a game of one-on-one.
With some inspiration from Dax, Drew decides to gather the old team back together for The Rucker 50 Tournament and a 100,000 dollar prize!
Well, the fate of Stone III’s prize comedy/sports movie relies on two ideas.
First, the elderly athletes tossing away their wheelchairs, dusting off their basketball shoes and ripping up the court should visually and emotionally resonate. Second, its sports-movie arc and NBA-level hoops action should deliver plenty of thrills.
Although real-life basketball stars – Irving, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, and Nate Robinson – comprise Dax’s Harlem Money squad (and they certainly demonstrate their on-the-court chops), the script does not provide them with enough nuanced and clever exchanges to keep our attention. Hence, the one-note gag of seniors whipping 20 and 30-somethings in basketball gets old pretty quickly and could induce audiences to call a timeout to hope for something more.
Now, it feels like Irving, O’Neal, Webber, Miller, and Robinson are – at least - giving their all for 1 hour and 43 minutes. Webber’s turn as Preacher – who has a most unique manner of baptizing children at The Calm Before the Storm Devine Ministries – delivers the funniest single scene from this group. Miller carries some whimsy with his character’s limitations, and specifically, Lights (Miller) is legally blind. O’Neal has an amusing moment in the picture’s third act, but otherwise his shtick feels tired.
Actually, the most significant character-driven issue is that the film’s centerpiece, Uncle Drew, is written and portrayed as a humorless character who mainly grumbles and sometimes offers occasional words of wisdom that have already been said, referenced and repeated over and over since the dawn of civilization. For instance, Dax needs a resonant pep talk, and Drew reminds him that he will miss 100 percent of the shots that he doesn’t take. Luckily for Dax that he is the only person on Planet Earth who has never heard this advice.
“Uncle Drew” is supposed to be breezy and comedic sports film. Although the movie desperately needs funnier material, the filmmakers do get the breezy portion of the equation right, because Stone III and writer Jay Longino create a harmless picture. Their film exudes safe, half-adequate entertainment for many sports-obsessed kids and some NBA fans wanting see hoops stars on the big screen, but simultaneously, most of the movie feels like a miss. Not a complete failure, like the God-awful and painfully unfunny Will Ferrell basketball project “Semi-Pro” (2008), but “Uncle Drew” does not give 100 percent effort either. It should be a better movie, and sloppy filmmaking takes part of the blame.
For example, the guys scrimmage an Alabama high school girls team in the deep south, but they need to be in New York City the next day for their tournament. Not sure how they arrived on time (spoiler alert), when they needed to travel 1,000 miles in a 40-year-old orange van. Additionally, Big Fella (O’Neal) walks on court with a Harlem Money jersey, but didn’t he quit the team during an earlier practice? How did he get his jersey? Also, the guys change their Harlem Money uniforms to represent a different name, but with no memorable rhyme or reason for the textile alteration.
Okay, maybe these gripes are not important, but the plot is terribly predictable, many of the jokes are uninspired and references to other basketball films – like “Hoosiers” (1986) and “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992) – just remind us that much better sports movies exist. Although Uncle Drew’s short career during his youth delivered a lasting impression, his forgettable film does not stand very tall, and that’s a problem in basketball.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.