Film Review: Uncle DrewSilly, harmless, sentimental, familiar as a soft drink on a summer’s afternoon, this adaptation of a Pepsi web series is popcorn entertainment at its airiest.
Millions of viewers are already familiar with the character of “Uncle Drew,” whom Pepsi first introduced to the world via a 2012 digital campaign/webisode on YouTube. It was then that NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving first donned several layers of prosthetic makeup to become the old-timey basketball legend who heckles “youngbloods” on NYC’s street courts, surprising them with his skills and teaching them what matters most: teamwork and love of the game. The promotional web series proved so successful (viewership so tantalizingly large), agents and film execs soon swooped in to package a film around the character.
Thus: Uncle Drew, coming to a theatre, as well as an electronic viewing device, near you. We now have a backstory for the man, the myth, the fictional legend: He was an NBA superstar in the ’60s and ’70s who lost it all to womanizing and stubborn pride. Uncle Drew, however, is not the protagonist of Uncle Drew the movie. That honor belongs to Dax (Lil Rel Howery of Get Out), a street-basketball coach down on his luck. When Dax’s rival (a hilarious Nick Kroll) steals Dax’s star player (Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic), Dax must look for a new team to coach in the prestigious Rucker Classic street-ball tournament—all the way to its $100K prize.
Enter Uncle Drew, who will only play for Dax if he can do so with his erstwhile crew. Act II, then, sees our generational Odd Couple on a road-trip in Uncle Drew’s shag-carpeted van—complete with 8-track player and “Boom Boom Room,” or a musty old couch in the back—searching for Drew’s former teammates. Like Irving, these actors are, or were, all professional basketball players: Reggie Miller as “Lights,” Nate Robinson as “Boots,” Chris Webber as “Preacher,” Lisa Leslie as “Betty Lou” and Shaquille O’Neal as “Big Fella.” Lack of practice, legal blindness, wheelchairs, old grudges and insecurities threaten to prevent team “Harlem Money” from winning the tourney. But in the end…let’s just say the buzzer-beater is a crowd-pleaser.
The fun of Uncle Drew is to be had in the energy of its athletic cast, all of whom appear to be having a grand old time playing around. They dribble, they dance, they crack jokes—what’s not to like? It helps that the filmmakers were well chosen: Screenwriter Jay Longino played college basketball, while the singularly named director, Charles Stone III (Drumline), is an old hand at turning promotional media gambits into obsessive fan favorites—he’s the director to thank or otherwise for Budweiser’s hit “Whassup” commercials.
Irving proves himself a capable actor as Uncle Drew, and Shaq plays his “giant-in-funny-contexts” bit (teaching karate to small children; participating in a club dance-off) to the nth and entirely un-self-serious degree. It’s unfortunate, however, that Tiffany Haddish, as Dax’s ex-girlfriend, is not set free to go full Girls Trip, or that Erica Ash, as Dax’s “nice” love interest, is never given the opportunity to be more than a pretty cheerleader for the geriatric team.
You know the story beats before Uncle Drew lands them, but no one will be watching for narrative innovation. To remain in keeping with the film’s love of the prosaic: It’s not the destination that matters, but the silly journey.
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