When the trailer for Charles Stone III’s Uncle Drew dropped, I predicted it to make a solid run at being the worst film of the year. None of the marketing – including said trailer – did anything to present the film as more than brainless humor grounded in old people acting like young people. On a personal note, I also have an intrinsic hate of basketball and I’m not particularly fond of the work of either Nick Kroll or Tiffany Haddish, either, so there was little appeal in this movie for me beyond being able to say that I’ve seen every movie at my local theater. But, to my great surprise, I was largely wrong.
Uncle Drew tells the story of Dax (Little Rel Howery), a basketball coach who risks everything he has to sponsor his team in a street-ball tournament – a tournament that carries a grand prize of $100,000.00. But in addition to now being broke, Dax loses both his team and his girlfriend (Haddish) to his childhood rival Mookie (Kroll), who embarrassed Dax in a basketball game in their youth. Dax stumbles across retired and elderly street-ball legend Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) and offers him the chance to build his own team and return for one final moment of glory, while Dax searches for both financial and personal redemption.
Irving’s Uncle Drew character originated in a series of Pepsi commercials so, yes, film adaptations can come from anywhere, folks. (Remember Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell? Same deal, there. I now sit and wait for my movie starring the Sonic guys.) The film version is a somewhat typical underdog sports comedy that plays as if it’s an odd concoction of White Men Can’t Jump (find that #ThrowbackThursday here), Rocky V, and The Muppet Movie (and that #ThrowbackThursday is here). Outside of using “elderly” athletes, there’s not much new offered by the film, but the cast easily compensates for the movie’s other shortcomings and they band together to make it a fun and entertaining ride, in spite of its absurd premise.
Again, I know virtually nothing about basketball (the only two players in this film that I would recognize on the street are Shaquille O’Neal and Lisa Leslie), but they all perform shockingly well in their respective roles. I suspect that another type of film meant to be taken more seriously would provide insurmountable challenges for them but, here, it’s nothing but net. They have good timing and delivery and understand physical humor. Much of the credit for this certainly should go to director Stone but, when he guided them, they followed and did an excellent job.
Howery also turns in an endearing performance as Dax. He is more of a lead than even the title character and he carries it well, actually forcing me to become invested in Dax’s struggles, despite the predictable nature of the narrative. Erica Ash charms as his love interest Maya and the two of them held ground the film and make it feel a little more like a real movie and not a gimmick. On the other hand, Nick Kroll does little that anyone else couldn’t do and Haddish is as loud and as grating as usual. But, hey, a fifty-percent success rate for the non-basketball players should almost count as a win, here, considering how low my expectations were.
As a comedy, the film is a mixed bag, being more amusing than outright funny. When relying on dialogue, the humor is much more successful – especially when Howery is involved – but the film has to offer up its fair share of physical comedy, as well, due to the concept. I rarely enjoy physical comedy, myself, but the attempts here are about as tolerable as any I’ve seen in recent years. It never lit my world on fire, but it didn’t make me want to put my face in my hands out of exasperation, either. To its credit, the film never resorts to slapstick and stays firmly in the “watch professional basketball players act goofy” lane. It’s not exactly game-changing genius, but it’s better than much of what’s out there.
Uncle Drew isn’t going to go down as any sort of classic, but it’s a movie that I expected to hate, but actually kind of liked. It’s silly and the premise is no more plausible than what one would see in a comic book or science-fiction film (and actually less plausible than many films in those genres), but if the viewer is willing to suspend disbelief and accept that Stone and Irving have set this story in a universe that isn’t our own, there’s a surprising amount of fun to be had, here. Several of the characters get their own arcs and Howery brings a real heart to the film on which the marketing department truly dropped the ball. Sometimes, the film works a little too hard to present our protagonists with challenges – and in some cases, this is done as a necessity in order to get all of their added value components into the story – but it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that the film is in no way the disaster it was poised to be. And those who like basketball (or Kroll or Haddish, even if they’re restricted to being supporting players) will almost certainly enjoy it all the more. It’s not the first film I would urge someone to rush out and see, but if you’re already interested or your friends are going and invite you along, go ahead and take the shot.
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