Look, I’ll be first to admit that I didn’t have much hope for Charles Stone III’s Uncle Drew, a feature-length Pepsi commercial starring the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, based on shorts Irving and the company made a few years back where the NBA All-Star would dress up in old-age prosthetics and dunk on unsuspecting ballers at local open courts.
It looked like an Eddie Murphy movie, with its over-reliance on make-up and its hopes that the audience would find that initial gag compelling enough to sustain a 90 minute runtime, and it just looked kind of… well, wacky, and not in a good way. But, strangely enough, Uncle Drew is actually a pretty fun time at the movies, lifted over the finish line by a quality cast of comedians, great basketball photography, and some decent heart. It’s not the best comedy you’ll see at the movies this summer, but you know what? It definitely won’t be the worst, and your kids (and basketball fans) will probably love it.
Forgoing the Bad Grandpa-like hidden-camera style of the shorts, the film ultimately tells the story of Dax (Get Out’s Lil’ Rel Howery), a street-ball coach who, once upon a time, was an orphaned kid with little in his life other than a love for the game. He played ball well, too, until the final play of the championship game of a tournament he was playing in ruined his aspirations forever. So he’s been beat down ever since, consistently getting his ass beat in the Rucker Classic by Mookie (Nick Kroll), who ruined his life all those years ago with a blocked shot, and being a doormat for his overbearing girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish, whose screentime is entirely in the trailers). A few days before the Rucker, Mookie steals his team and his girl, and without prospects, Dax begins to fall apart. It’s then that he meets Uncle Drew (Irving, who sounds way younger than his compatriots but has the best make-up), and watches him annihilate a young dude on the court. The two become friends, and the old man decides it’s time to get his old gang back together for one last shot at Rucker glory.
The two travel around the country in Drew’s old van, collecting geriatric ballers like the dunking Preacher (Chris Webber) and his wife (Lisa Leslie), the blind Lights (Reggie Miller), the catatonic Boots (Nate Robinson), and the kung-fu master Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal), whom Drew has some unfinished business with. They’re the key to the entire film, and if they don’t work, nothing here does. I’m really glad to say that each of them shows off some incredible comic timing and some true charm — especially Boots, who, once given his old Chucks, rises out of his wheelchair and takes to the skies for a windmill dunk.
It’s this weird fusion of the sadness of aging you see in a movie like Cocoon and the goofy humor of something like Space Jam, and for the most part, it really does succeed at what it’s setting out to do. Shaq does some pretty great work here, and he has a stretch in the finale, where he’s trying to find a TV to watch the championship game on, that is actually quite funny. There are a ton of inside jokes, of course (Drew reminding Preacher that they don’t have any timeouts left during a game, Big Fella admonishing Drew to “pass the ball, Kobe”), but they’re not grating, and it also lampoons bits and pieces of sports media, such as a faux 30 for 30 that aires about Drew’s squad and their exploits at the top of the film.
Of course, there are a number of things that don’t work — the film could have spent more time developing its elder characters, there’s a super-forced romance that is shoehorned in between Boots’ granddaughter and Dax, and Kroll is doing that same ol’ Jamie Kennedy schtick that wasn’t funny in 2003 and isn’t funny now — but Uncle Drew is a pretty solid crowdpleaser, one that isn’t as heavy on the product placement as you might think.
There aren’t a ton of great basketball comedies out in the world, and it’s nice to see one that leans so heavily on the recent history of the game hit theaters at this particular moment. And who knows? Maybe Kyrie has some chops, and maybe Shaq is looking for someone to star in a Steel reboot (there’s a new Shaq-Fu game, in case you haven’t heard, so perhaps this isn’t so far-fetched), and in a few years, he’ll get a true bomb to his name. This, though, will not be that film.
Featured image by Quantrell D.Colbert, courtesy of Lionsgate.