Uncle Drew

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/29/18 14:48:28

"Plays better than it looks."
3 stars (Just Average)

"Uncle Drew" is at the high end of how good you can reasonably expect a movie produced by a soft drink company and starring a bunch of non-actors under several layers of prosthetic makeup to be, and that's assuming you don't dismiss movies with their origins in advertising right out of hand. That's mostly because there's a genuine love of basketball on display, and that can sometimes do more for a movie than a few more jokes or a particularly inventive script.

And make no mistake, a lot of this movie can be clunky. It opens with a mock-documentary bit about its title character, a legendary Harlem street-ball player from decades ago, but then spends a fair chunk of time with Dax (Lil Rel Howery), a sneaker-store employee who has scraped together the entry fee for Rucker Playground tournament and built a team around one star player (Aaron Gordon), only to have his old grade-school nemesis Mookie (Nick Kroll) steal his players and girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish) kick him out. The guys at the barbershop tell him to recruit Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving), and he does so reluctantly, after seeing the septuagenarian school a bunch of youngsters. Drew insists on putting his old team back together, all as old as him and even less inspiring: Preacher (Chris Webber), whose wife Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie) doesn't want them leaving their church even for the weekend; Lights (Nate Robinson), who is legally blind; Boots (Nate Robinson), who hasn't walked or talked for years, although granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash) thinks the trip could do him some good; and Big Fella (Shaquille O'Neal), who now teaches kids karate and hasn't talked to Drew for fifty years.

Folks who follow basketball more closely than I do will probably catch more specific jokes - I got the bits about Shaq's character not making free throws, but that became a thing even non-fans knew - but it's not like the basic gag of guys who have aged a bit doesn't work on its own. One important surprise is that Kyrie Irving's Drew is kind of the least funny character of the group, whether because the rest of the team had to be more specific than "old guy really good at basketball" or because his true talents lie on the court. Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, and Lisa Leslie all get to play up big, silly bits while Nate Robinson does a surprisingly good job of communicating the body language of a guy who has allowed age to implode him. And Shaquille O'Neal is Shaquille O'Neal, a giant whose charisma exceeds his talent as an actor by enough that he can can carry more of the story than one might think. I really liked this group by the time the last game was over; they're clearly having fun.

They're enough fun that they can be dropped into a story that takes a lot for granted, stuff like Uncle Drew talking about bringing the game back to its roots but never really demonstrating what makes his game different than the modern one, or Maya kind of being there so that Dax can bounce back higher after Jess dumps him (though Erica Ash brings enough upbeat energy to the part to make the character feel indispensable). It puts Lil Rel Howery in a tough position - he's put in a lot of spots where he's either got to try to make tired young/old gags into quality banter with Kyrie Irving or be kind of steamrolled by Tiffany Haddish. He seems to be trying very hard to do the sort of thing Kevin Hart makes look effortless.

About halfway through, though, the movie finds its sweet center. The kind of directionless road trip gets stopped at a gas station and the guys are playing a team of teenage girls for gas money, and director Charles Stone III doesn't play the scene for slapstick or spend all his time on Dax losing it over his supposed all-timers getting outshot; he focuses on how everybody on the court is enjoying themselves even if they can't move like they used to (or, on the other side, because they're young and good). Even the rockiest parts of the cast seem to light up when the game takes center stage, so much so that the movie posits that these elders' love of the game is something magical, and you buy it enough to not really care that Boots was in a wheelchair two seconds ago. The action is often cut together like SportsCenter highlight reels than games, but there are a lot of good highlights.

There's a definite feeling that this is a sketch padded out to feature length, but not many movies are this good-natured and truly sincere when they say things like "you don't stop playing cuz you get old..." or "you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take." "Uncle Drew" could stand to be a lot more creative, but it's just charming enough to get away with being by the numbers.

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